On Monday, the U.K. and the European Union announced that they had reached a new deal called the “Windsor Framework” to revise the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol that sets out trade rules between Northern Ireland, which is part of Great Britain, and the Republic of Ireland, an E.U. member state.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Windsor, near London, followed by a press conference Monday, where Sunak and von der Leyen hailed the new agreement as a “decisive breakthrough.”
Sunak told reporters the agreement charts “a new way forward” for Northern Ireland by removing “any sense of a border in the Irish Sea” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. The introduction of checks on goods flowing between the two following Brexit has soured U.K.-E.U. relations, sparked the collapse of the local Belfast government, and shaken a decades-old peace process in Northern Ireland.
On Tuesday, Sunak traveled to Belfast to sell the agreement to unionists who have long come out against any measures that weakens Northern Ireland’s place within Britain.
Below, what to know about the controversial protocol.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
The protocol is a trading agreement that was negotiated in 2020 between the U.K. and the E.U., which was created to minimize customs and checks on the island of Ireland.
Brexit had sparked fears of an introduction of cameras or physical checks at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. An open border between the two was a key component of the 1998 Good Friday agreement that brought hard-won peace to Northern Ireland following decades of conflict known as the Troubles.
To maintain the 1998 Good Friday agreement, both the U.K. and E.U. agreed that the inspection of goods would be conducted between Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland, effectively creating a de facto border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. The protocol was signed as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, which is now ratified under international law.
However, the British government has since signaled that it wants different rules to help remove checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
According the the revised deal, there will be a green lane for traders transporting goods to Northern Ireland exempt from customs controls, and a red lane for goods going to the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the E.U.
At Monday’s press conference, Sunak also announced a “Stormont brake,” which will allow Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly to stop the E.U.’s customs rules from applying. “This will establish a clear process for which the democratically elected assembly can pull an emergency brake for changes to E.U. goods rules that would have significant and lasting effects on everyday lives,” Sunak said. “If the brake is pulled, the U.K. government will have a veto.”
Why has the Protocol been a source of tension?
The Northern Ireland Protocol has led to political division in Northern Ireland and created rifts within the U.K.’s Conservative Party over what it means for Brexit.
British unionist politicians in Belfast said the trade border in the Irish Sea undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K., and in 2022 the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing government in Northern Ireland collapsed. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has refused to participate in any government until the Protocol was scrapped or substantially rewritten.
Conservative MPs in Westminster as well as the DUP are opposed to the role played by the European Court of Justice in resolving any trade disputes that arise over the rules. They insist the European court must have no jurisdiction in matters relating to the U.K.
Is there support for the revised protocol?
The deal has been criticized by Sunak’s critics but the DUP has remained largely silent in recent days, after saying it would need to see the details of the deal first. Sunak is expected to announce the deal with or without DUP approval. “I want to get the job done,” he told the Sunday Times.
Nationalist parties Sinn Fein and the SDLP back the protocol, with Sinn Fein being in favor as it would prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
On Sunday, U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told Channel 4 that there was no “de facto veto” from the DUP. “We want to engage, and persuade, and convince, and demonstrate … [that] the changes are substantial enough for the DUP,” Raab said. “We’re confident enough in the substance of the changes to feel front-footed about doing so.”
Sunak has said British lawmakers will get to vote on the Northern Ireland Protocol deal, but that he will give MPs time to digest it first.
Sunak has the support of senior Tory MPs, including former Brexit secretary David Davis, who said his own “instinct” was to support a deal. “Sunak is working hard to win Brexit supporters over. I’ve had a call from him. If he needs Labour support, it might be mildly embarrassing, but nothing more,” Davis told The Independent.
On Monday, Labour Leader Kier Starmer said that his party was likely to support any deal that the government strikes with the E.U., adding that Labour isn’t a divided party on the issue. Speaking at an event with business leaders held in central London, Starmer said that his own experience working as a barrister in Northern Ireland added to his view that anything that would improve the situation there would be “welcome.”
Will the deal improve U.K. ties to the E.U. and U.S.?
The deal entails major concessions from Brussels, which has so far been more favorable to Sunak than his more hardline predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. If the revised deal falls through, Sunak would be forced to unilaterally override key parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which could lead to a costly trade war with Brussels.
Sunak also hopes the Windsor Framework will help improve relations with the U.S., which helped broker the Good Friday Agreement. The Biden administration previously warned Sunak’s predecessors that unilaterally overriding the Protocol would not be “conducive” to a U.K.-U.S. trade deal. In February, Sunak met with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in Munich, where the two leaders “affirmed their shared commitment to protecting and building on the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,” according to the White House. Biden is expected to travel to the U.K. around Good Friday in April, but on condition that an agreement is in place by then.
What happens next?
Sunak is in Belfast and will hold informal discussions with Northern Ireland’s political parties. He has insisted that the Windsor Framework addresses concerns about current post-Brexit trading arrangements.
However the DUP has said it will take time to come to a “collective decision” on the deal and it appears that not all of their elected representatives are on the same page. Hard-line DUP MP Ian Paisley said he had a “gut” verdict that he did not think the plan went far enough while the DUP chief whip, Sammy Wilson insisted that no E.U. law should apply in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin, which is the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has welcomed the deal and has called on the DUP to return to the Stormont Assembly. If the DUP refuses to back the Windsor Framework it would lead to continued political deadlock in Northern Ireland. If Sunak pushes ahead with the Framework without DUP support it could mean an end to the possibility of the DUP returning to the Northern Irish Assembly.
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