On Tuesday morning, the headlines on the front pages across the United Kingdom and Ireland — and much of the rest of the European Union too — were celebrating to a varying degree the reset in relations between London and Brussels in finding a way forward and making Brexit better.
Sure, the former PM Boris Johnson was the man who got Brexit done. But it’s Rishi Sunak who is making Brexit better.
Ever since the “over ready” quick fix Brexit deal was agreed by Johnson and his EU counterparts, the issue of Northern Ireland remained indigestible to hardline Brexiteers and the largest unionist party in the province — the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) — who want it to be treated the same way as the rest of the UK on the other side of the Irish Sea.
The conundrum in Brexit, ever since the idea of leaving the EU was floated by Eurosceptics, was the island of Ireland, where the only land border between the UK and the bloc exists.
And given the sensitives over a long history of violence in Northern Ireland over the very division of the island in 1921, it was always going to be the hardest element to solve.
Relationship reset between London and EU
Johnson’s solution was politically expedient for the Brexiteers but always an issue for the unionists. He simply drew a line down the Irish Sea that separates Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales, with the three nations on the island of Great Britain being out of the EU customs zone, while Northern Ireland was left under EU regulations.
And the only way that could work was to impose customs checks between the two geographically separate parts of the UK — which upset Brexiteers and the unionists.
And until this “Northern Ireland protocol”, as the arrangement was known, was resolved, there could be no prospect of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, or indeed for a reset of relations between London and the EU.
So has the deal, hammered out for weeks now in the quiet, between Sunak and the EU, resolved this conundrum. This “Windsor Framework”, announced between Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, certainly appears to tick all the boxes.
Relations between the EU and the UK have certainly taken an upturn, with von der Leyen addressing the UK Prime Minister as “Dear Rishi” at one point during Monday’s press conference.
If Sunak has indeed managed to reset relations, it allows for progress to be made on contentious domestic political issues such as the stream of refugee boats that are coming across the English Channel from France.
In the coming days, Sunak is to visit France and meet with French President Emmanuel Macron. A deal on the protocol will make for a more positive talk on those small boats crossing from France.
With a conflict raging on the EU’s eastern borders in Ukraine, having the UK onside means Brussels and London can sign from the same songbook on common defence issues.
The deal would also remove the risk of a damaging trade war between the two sides — the last thing UK consumers need as they struggle with inflation and a cost-of-living crisis.
For now, the DUP and hardline Brexiteers are giving little away, saying they want to read the text carefully. But it does seem to go a long way in fixing the mess left over from that oven ready deal.
The framework includes green and red lane trade routes — where goods staying shipped from Great Britain and staying in Northern Ireland, will use a green lane to avoid customs bureaucracy, while goods moving from Great Britain through Northern Ireland on to the Republic of Ireland or the rest of the EU, will use a red lane
There are also changes to value added tax (VAT) that lessen paperwork, meaning British products such as food and drink, trees, plants and seed potatoes will be available in Northern Ireland.
Special prohibitive rules covering pets are being removed. There’s also a deal on medicines so drugs approved for use by the UK’s medicines regulator will be automatically available in every pharmacy and hospital in Northern Ireland.
And, perhaps most critically, politicians in Northern Ireland working in the power-sharing government at Stormont in suburban Belfast, will have a greater say in protecting their sovereignty in Northern Ireland.
Stormont will have the power to stop changes in EU goods laws from applying in Northern Ireland. If this “Stormont brake” is pulled, the UK government will have a veto that will apply permanently. But for it to work, the DUP will have to enter into government, something it has refused to do for 15 months while the protocol issues remained unresolved.
The key question now is whether the Windsor Framework resolved most of their objections. That there is silence can be interpreted with cautious optimism.
The DUP could refuse to accept the new framework and continue to boycott Stormont, continuing the political stalemate in Northern Ireland. On Monday night in the House of Commons at Westminster, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson noted that “significant progress has been made”.
“Ultimately, my party will now assess all these proposed outcomes and arrangements against our seven tests,” he said, adding “and whether it respects and restores Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom”.
Brexiteers within the Conservative party could also try to sink the deal if they are unhappy with it and have called on Sunak to put it to a vote in the House of Commons.
Its passage is not in doubt with Labour saying they will support it. But should there be a divide within the Conservative party ranks on Brexit and more than 20 Brexiteers rejecting it, Sunak’s position would be significantly weakened moving forward.