By Bernie McAdam
Last month Tory Prime Minister Rishi Sunak agreed a deal known as the Windsor Framework with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. This marked a major shift from previous Tory leaders in terms of resolving the problems arising from the Northern Ireland Protocol that had been negotiated by Boris Johnson and the EU in 2019. For Sunak, the agreement represents a less confrontational role with the EU and a determination to face down opposition within the Tory ranks.
On 22 March, the Commons voted overwhelmingly to ratify the Windsor Framework, with 515 in favour and just 29 against, although only one part of the deal, the ‘Stormont Brake’ was actually debated. The inability of Sunak’s Tory opponents, led by Johnson and Truss, to muster more than 22 votes makes clear the major shift in the balance of forces within the Tory party. That the other 7 votes came from the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, simply confirmed that it is incapable of any change.
The Windsor Framework
Under the Protocol, inspections of goods and document checks would be carried out at Northern Ireland ports rather than at the land border with the Irish Republic. This infuriated many Unionists like the DUP who claimed that this Irish Sea border was a threat to the union with the UK. Smarting under this pressure, Johnson then threatened a new Bill in the UK Parliament that would allow for parts of the Protocol to be abolished. In response, the EU threatened legal action.
The Windsor Framework has broken this impasse. The EU has dropped the legal threat and has significantly reduced the number of checks at the ports. Now, goods that are destined for Northern Ireland from Great Britain will travel through a new ‘green lane’, with only minimal inspection, whilst those goods bound for the Irish Republic, an EU member, will go through a ‘red lane’, subject to more checks.
So, the Protocol has been significantly reformed, but it has not been scrapped. There will be no hard land border between Northern Ireland and the EU. There will still be border control at the ports i.e. the Irish Sea border remains. Northern Ireland’s special economic status will mean that it benefits from being within both UK and EU markets. The EU’s European Court of Justice will still have the final say on whether Northern Ireland is following certain EU rules.
As part of the Framework and as a sop to the Unionists, Sunak invented a ‘concession’ in the form of a ‘Stormont brake’ that would allow 30 MLA’s from two parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont to raise an objection to any new goods rule. Once the UK government told the EU that the ‘brake’ had been triggered, then the rule would not be implemented. Note… it would be the UK government that decided whether to pursue the objection or not.
The precondition for the ‘brake’, support from 30 Assembly members from at least two parties, also depended on Stormont being up and running. However, since the last Assembly election, in which they came second to Sinn Fein, the DUP have boycotted the Assembly, preventing the formation of the Executive, supposedly because of their objections to the Protocol. Given their likely intransigence, Sunak’s proposal of the brake as an apparent concession to their concerns was never much more than a cosmetic device designed never to be used.
Good Friday unravels
In fact, the DUP’s continuing boycott of Stormont has more to do with their inbred sectarian hostility to sharing power with Irish nationalists. Now that they have been relegated to second biggest party, the thought that they would be in an Executive with a Sinn Fein First Minister would fill them with repugnance. Rather, they would wait until the next election to try and claw back enough Unionist votes to reclaim their biggest party status. A seemingly hard-line formal position on rejecting the Framework would at least ward off the even harder line Traditional Unionist Voice.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), the deal continues to unravel. Indeed, since 1998, the devolved institutions have been suspended for around a third of the time. The DUP will claim that the current boycott represents a growing disillusionment within the Unionist community to devolved government. For them, a period of direct rule from Westminster would not be the worst outcome and certainly not threaten the link with the UK.
The illusion promoted by the GFA was that hard-line Unionism would warm to the task of sharing power with the nationalists once Sinn Fein had accepted the existence of the northern state. But you underestimate the supremacist and bigoted nature of Unionism at your peril. The northern state was created by Britain’s strategy of partitioning Ireland in 1921, creating an arbitrary piece of land with a Unionist majority and calling it ‘Northern Ireland’. The emerging state was designed and functioned to suppress its nationalist minority. The resulting systematic discrimination and repression resulted in the fight for Civil Rights in the late 1960s, followed by an armed struggle to smash that state.
In 1998, with the signing of the GFA, the northern state gained the decoration of a devolved parliament. Together with the removal of some of the more noxious forms of discrimination, it gave hope to a war weary population. The DUP and Sinn Fein both agreed on defending the state and the rule of law; they and their supporters were beneficiaries of a sectarian allocation of funds, and they both, along with all the other main political parties, agreed to implement Westminster austerity policies which cut public services to the bone. The Assembly/Executive became the main instrument of British rule in the north. The much-promised economic benefits of peace never materialised.
The GFA has copper fastened partition and cannot resolve the democratic deficit at the heart of the northern state. Power sharing is a clever way of concealing this, at least for a time. But the contradiction will always burst forth, the contradiction of having a British border in Ireland, a border which denies the right of the Irish people as a whole to decide the future of the North and gives the Unionists a permanent veto.