Conflict Alerts # 593, 2 March 2023
In the news
On 27 February, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak agreed on a deal with the European Union that set a “decisive breakthrough” over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The new BREXIT deal now has the Windsor Framework, which effectively replaces the old Northern Ireland Protocol, a major bone of contention between the UK and EU. According to the old protocol, brought by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a few goods from Ireland to Northern Ireland were subjected to checks. However, as Sunak hailed, the new framework has “removed any sense of a border (through customs and checks) in the Irish Sea.”
On 27 February, the Labour party said they would back the deal, while also reminding Sunak that his party signed the last protocol, which created a political crisis in Northern Ireland. The DUP, one of the major political parties in Northern Ireland, had refused to take part in the power-sharing government in Stormont until the former Protocol had been fixed. With the new framework in place, the DUP said it would review the details of what has been published before deciding on a position.
On 28 February, spokesman for the US National Security Council John Kirby said the Biden administration was “grateful” that the UK and EU had managed to come up with the deal, which he said would improve prosperity for both parties. Simultaneously, it would safeguard the peace arrangements of the Belfast Agreement, also called the Good Friday Agreement, that sought to solve the deep ethnonationalist divisions between NI and the Republic of Ireland.
Issues at large
First, the Windsor Framework in brief. The new deal puts in place three things: removes “any sense of border in the Irish sea”; availability of more British goods in Northern Ireland including medicines and online shopping; “safeguards sovereignty for Northern Ireland” by allowing the NI Assembly to stop EU goods laws applying in Northern Ireland using a mechanism called the ‘Stormont brake.’ But Von der Leyen said the European Court of Justice would have the final say on single market issues but with a softer role. The framework simplifies and removes checks along the green lane and red lane system for goods that will stay in Northern Ireland and those that will go to the EU respectively.
Second, preserving the Good Friday Agreement. Since the BREXIT deal, peace in NI has been relative. Occasional violent conflicts had broken out between the unionists and the remainers. With the ‘Stormont Brake’ political actors in NI will get to decide on its economy. However, a catch remains. Sunak said the Stormont Brake can only be used when the situation is considered “significant” enough. Yet the ‘Stormont Brake’ preserves the devolved power sharing arrangements put in place by the Good Friday Agreement.
Third, the reset in the UK-EU relation. The framework signifies a moment of cooperation between the UK and EU where the two, a year back, looked eye to eye on the NI protocol. In Dublin, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the negotiating teams in the EU and UK operated in “good faith”, as well as parties at Stormont. In a change of terms, the EU will accept the UK’s public health standards but will need to carry “not for EU” labels. In return, the UK has agreed to share near-real-time customs data with the EU so it can spot evidence of fraud and take remedial action if necessary.
First, the task of implementing the framework. As the details remain to be published, small businesses are still weary of the processes set by the dual lane arrangement. It puts food and medicines back on supermarket shelves yet do not provide a roadmap on the durability of the trade routes.
Second, the moment of truth arrives for the political actors in Northern Ireland. Stormont has been unable to use devolved powers to tackle the cost of living. The stand-off in Stormont also risked tarnishing April’s celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. With the new framework, the spotlight falls on DUP. After looking at the fine print of the Windsor Framework, it remains to be seen whether Stormont breaks or puts a brake on the democratic deficit.
Third, stopgap peace between the UK and Ireland. The revised terms of the protocol will soften the Irish Sea border but will not end it. Checks could still return on certain perishable food items coming from the EU. However, with the framework, the UK could no longer breach international law after the prime minister dropped the Johnson-era bill.
Fourth, the future of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. With the framework, Sunak has delivered his party’s first mandates in a long time. In taking a calculated risk, the prime minister desires to better the working relationship with Brussels. The Tory leader would now be able to ensure that his summit with the French president ends with a deal on small boat crossings.