In what many hope will be the final chapter of the seemingly never-ending Brexit story, British prime minister Rishi Sunak announced on Monday the Windsor Framework, a political agreement in principle with the European Union to resolve their differences over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), that part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement designed to avoid a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
But such hope may yet be dashed – once again. In Belfast the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had earlier responded unenthusiastically to Sunak’s briefings on the negotiations, while members of the European Research Group (ERG), the ultra-Brexiter faction of the Conservative Party, had talked of revolt. If they do reject the Windsor Framework, the consequences for politics in NI and Great Britain, for the Belfast Good Friday Agreement (BGFA) and for EU-UK relations will be far-reaching.
For Sunak the stakes are high. If he stares down his critics and succeeds, he will emerge stronger as leader of his party and country. If he fails, he will at best be diminished as leader and at worst become the fifth UK prime minister since 2016 to fall victim to the cancerous politics of Brexit.
In December 2019, Boris Johnson won an election on the promise he would ‘get Brexit done’. Yet, more than three years later, Brexit continues to dominate politics at Westminster and in NI. Why is it so?
A shared principle of the UK and EU governments during the Brexit negotiations was there should be no hard border on the island of Ireland. This was partly for practical reasons: difficulty of policing a border that meanders for about 500 kilometres, often bisecting villages and farms, and of sustaining an all-Ireland economy that has developed over the past 50 years rendering the border all but invisible.
A further reason was that police and security services had advised that dissident republicans might consider physical border infrastructure a target and an excuse to resume violent action. This was a significant concern as maintenance of the fragile peace achieved through the BGFA was another shared principle of the UK and EU.
For the EU, the border issue is top priority. It fears a porous land border will encourage smuggling on a scale that could compromise the EU single market and customs union. Goods non-compliant with EU rules could slip into the republic from NI and from there to continental Europe as there are no checks between Ireland and the rest of the EU.
Brexiters have downplayed the border issue, claiming that physical infrastructure can be avoided by the use of track-and-trace technology. Nevertheless, despite years of negotiations, they have failed to identify any existing technology that will work in practice. As a result, the existence of an effective EU-UK border protecting the single market remains an EU red line.
Confident of finding a solution, Theresa May’s government proposed an interim measure. The UK would continue to maintain alignment with EU rules until the solution emerged – the so-called ‘backstop’. Brexiters, understandably, smelt a rat, arguing the backstop effectively tied the UK to EU rules indefinitely.
After several House of Commons defeats, May was toppled as Conservative leader in July 2019 by Boris Johnson, who promised he would ditch the backstop and get Brexit done. He assured the DUP there would be no impediment to NI-GB trade. Nevertheless, in October Johnson signed the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that included the NIP, which effectively placed the EU-UK border in the Irish Sea, subjecting NI-GB trade to customs and regulatory checks.
In December 2019 Johnson took this ‘excellent’ agreement to the people at the general election and won a resounding majority. In January 2020 the UK parliament, including ERG MPs now demanding the NIP be scrapped, endorsed the agreement, though DUP MPs voted against it.
Initially, the DUP accepted the outcome. But with polling numbers in 2021 favouring more extreme unionist parties, especially the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), they vocally opposed the NIP. In protest against the protocol, the DUP collapsed the Stormont government in February 2022 and then boycotted the new NI Assembly elected three months later, thus preventing the appointment of a new Executive. The political stalemate in NI continues, with civil servants, not elected ministers, running the government.
All NI parties accept there are problems with the NIP, but most consider them soluble with tweaking, as per the expected agreement. For the DUP and TUV, the problem is the NIP itself, which they claim drives a wedge between NI and GB. Just as the EU is protective of the integrity of the EU single market, political unionism will not abide any threat to the integrity of the union.
The fundamental problem lies with the British government’s decision to interpret the 2016 referendum as requiring not only cessation of EU membership but also leaving the EU single market and customs union. Instead of emulating other non-EU states, such as Norway and Switzerland, which participate in the EU single market, the UK chose a ‘hard Brexit’. Consequently, an effective EU-UK border had to be placed somewhere. And, if not on the island of Ireland, then in the Irish Sea it must be.
The DUP is right to claim the NIP undermines NI’s place in the union. No other part of the UK is subject to rules made by EU institutions on which it has no representation and where disputes are adjudicated by a foreign court. But, as the only major NI party to back Brexit (contrary to the majority of NI voters), as supporter of a hard Brexit, and as cheerleader for Johnson against May, it contributed to the problem.
The Windsor Framework attempts to address unionist concerns. While it has been difficult to envisage any agreement that would satisfy both the EU and the DUP/ERG, in NI politics many an intractable problem has been resolved by a fudge. If that is not possible in this case, time will soon tell whether Rishi Sunak has the courage and political skill necessary to stare down his critics and finally get Brexit done or whether the DUP/ERG tail will wag the UK dog and continue the never-ending Brexit story.