Chris Patten has called on the UK government to "tell the truth" and implement the "legally binding" Northern Ireland protocol, saying "the problem at heart is not the sausages you get from Sainsbury's but the porkies that we all get, home and abroad, from Downing Street."
He also said it seemed certain that the “lack of trust in the British government on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland” would “do nothing to halt the momentum” towards a vote “sooner perhaps rather than later, for a decision to get rid of the border once and for all and reunite Ireland.”
A former MP who was a junior minister in Northern Ireland, Lord Patten was the chairman of the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland – which was created following the Belfast Agreement – and is former governor of Hong Kong.
He delivered the inaugural lecture in memory of the former deputy leader of the SDLP, Séamus Mallon, which was hosted virtually by the John and Pat Hume Foundation, on Wednesday evening.
Describing the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement as a “bet on peace, that bargain across security walls”, he said it was now “no exaggeration to worry that it has been put at risk by Brexit, and by a government which looks as though it has difficulty comprehending, except in terms of pound notes ... what has kept our Kingdom more or less United.”
Accusing the UK prime minister of giving assurances on Brexit to unionists and other MPs “that you must know are not true”, he said the British government must now “explain, which happens to be true, that both communities in Northern Ireland are equally challenged by the way Brexit works, but they are given significant advantage through the protocol, as many have pointed out, to get the best of both worlds.”
He said “London must work in good faith with the EU to identify possible flexibilities in the application of the protocol, including flexibilities that are available to the British government itself.
“It is not for our Brexit government simply to wish away what it negotiated and blame any consequences on others as we face the marching season in July.
We should be blunt about this. It matters to our international reputation,” he said.
“We must hope that the fallout from the shambles does not turn into an avalanche of political trouble,” he said.
Lord Patten also reflected on his report into policing in Northern Ireland, which recommended the reform of the RUC and its replacement with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in 2001.
“Our report has stood the test of time, bringing policing into line with the aspirations and promises of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement, removing the police from the core of the violent debate about their perceived role in relation to the dominance of Protestant Unionism, and increasing the number of Catholics in a police service tasked with explicit human rights obligations,” he said.
He paid tribute to Mr Mallon, who died in 2020, describing it as a “great privilege and also a great honour” to be invited to give this inaugural lecture to remember “the life and values of a man, Séamus Mallon, whom I knew and have long admired.”
Lord Patten highlighted how Mr Mallon, from Markethill in south Armagh, knew many of the victims of the Troubles and resolved to visit every home and attend every funeral, regardless of background.
"I was thinking of this when reading about the present prime minister's refusal to meet the relatives of the Ballymurphy victims," he said.
Concluding, he said, “Northern Ireland deserves better; the Republic too.
“Séamus Mallon believed that, Séamus worked for that and Séamus Mallon hoped for that.
“He was a man whose identity encompassed his patriotism but was not constrained, not bound within the most limited and narrow definition of that often abused word, patriotism.”