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Artillery Row

Stormont clouds ahead

The failings of the Windsor Framework are about to be exposed

In less than a week’s time, the government will begin implementing the Windsor Framework for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The framework is a minimally amended version of the Northern Ireland Protocol, large parts of which until now have gone — for nearly three years — unimplemented and blessedly ignored, without any discernible negative impact on the precious EU single market. Now to be implemented and unignored, there is a looming disaster for trade in goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister spoke economically about his achievement, and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in response has refused to lead his party back into (the currently kaput) devolved government.

In the past month, however, there have been rumours, murmurs, briefings of the negotiations between the DUP and the government reaching an agreement to bridge the gap and restore the executive. So far? Not yet. Meanwhile the public space has been filled by journalists, local politicians and the Northern Ireland Office expressing a mixture of doom and hope. Everything is falling apart sans an Executive, whilst all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well if the Executive returns. Again, so far — not yet.

Last week the Belfast News Letter ran a piece by Lord Bew and Lord Godson, arguing that the DUP should return to the institutions in order to operate the Windsor Framework. There are few in government now willing to speak up for its virtues. Bew and Godson, both unionists, have filled a gap by offering an argument in its defence. The argument advanced is mostly nonsense, the reasons given failing to justify even a half-hearted unionist embrace of the Windsor Framework as it currently stands.

The piece is framed by a reading of unionist history and recalls two moments of decision that are said to speak to our present impasse. The lesson? The most successful unionist leaders go with the grain of “imperfect” British government policy, even if they think it doesn’t appear, at the time, to be in unionism’s best interests but actually might be. Not good advice, I would suggest, and not really borne out by the evidence.

Retreat to exhorting pragmatism is always a red flag

The use of Sir James Craig’s acceptance of home rule for Northern Ireland is particularly amusing in this regard. Ulster unionism’s acceptance of a devolved parliament in 1921, and whether it could have been different, is a complex and disputed historical question. If you want to identify a lapsarian moment in the history of Northern Ireland and the grim state of unionism today, though, this is it. Bew and Godson, being of the Trimble school, are enthusiastic devolutionists. Perhaps they think it was and is worth the trouble. I’m not enthusiastic or a devolutionist, and I don’t. The record is unambiguously clear on the latter. As a matter of historical pedagogy, please think the opposite of old Stormont and its successors as an example of successful unionist pragmatism, in the face of a British government looking for convenient fixes.

Retreat to exhorting pragmatism is always a red flag — similar in argumentative strategy to “you think you’re always right”. It sets reasonable, realistic pragmatists against the ideologues, against the “hardliners”. Well, everybody is ultimately a pragmatist; it is the purest self-conceit to suppose otherwise. Everybody is also an ideologue, but few want to own up to it as it might shatter a fragile self-image. No, the issue isn’t “whether” pragmatism but when and why. Bew and Godson say today is the day — but they are wrong.

As an occasional empiricist, I have long thought that the most pressing issue in dealing with the sea border was to address its effects. If implemented, it would cause harm to the wellbeing of the people of Northern Ireland, with longer term potential implications for Northern Ireland’s political economy.

This is not to say the constitutional and democratic issues are unimportant, but they are less so in the short term and more difficult to overcome in any case. Constitutional issues are downstream of a certain way of thinking about Northern Ireland, much of which Bew has endorsed and one which I enthusiastically reject. It requires serious and sustained challenge. A hint: it won’t be undone by guffing on about identity, “PUL” or “the unionist community”. This to say, what I would have liked to have seen from Sunak’s Windsor Framework was somewhat different from the DUP’s seven tests.

When Bew and Godson tell me that the Windsor Framework represents a substantial pushback against the original protocol, I laugh. It simply isn’t true. This was obviously the case minutes after the government published its risibly dressed up command paper, and the EU in turn released detailed documentation on what was actually agreed. The substance is demonstrably not there. It puts Northern Ireland in a worse position than it has been in for the past few years, because of the UK government’s unilateral decision not to implement large parts of the original protocol until now.

Medicine is one example offered as good fortune. The EU introducing a medicine blockade of Northern Ireland was never going to happen. It was one of those implications of the shambolic negotiations on the UK’s exit that would have tanked support for the protocol in Northern Ireland overnight. It wasn’t a concession, but a political necessity in order to sustain the other elements of the sea border.

The prospect of decent gains through unionist governance is minimal

The much vaunted red and green lanes and the concomitant reduction in “formalities”, as EU bureaucrospeak has it, seem more like a substantial improvement — one of the great British negotiating achievements. Again, though, things are not as advertised. Yes, some businesses in Great Britain could benefit from “reduced” paperwork and checks. A reduction was never the test, however. The test is whether a reduction is sufficient in scale and scope to obviate the disincentive of the bother and cost to sell to a tiny market like Northern Ireland, such that there would be no (or no significant) diversion of trade due to the protocol.

The framework isn’t close to this and evidence emerging from businesses and industry experts is bearing it out. What has actually been agreed is a red lane — where the full panoply of EU customs and regulatory formalities will apply — and a slightly less red lane. It is essentially an illusion for people impressed by “green.” The appearance of giving substantial ground without the substance. Moreover, much remains to be seen on the actual implementation, in which only the most naïve of optimists could place their trust.

Even if less of a red lane is something, many goods remain outside its scope. Manufacturing, agriculture and horticulture industries are facing significant problems. We even have the inviting prospect of botulism because animals cannot be vaccinated. Other vexatious elements also remain intact — state aid and VAT, for example — which do not show good faith on the part of our close friends and partners.

The degree of pushback to the original protocol is one thing. The other, which is duly recognised, is that there are many problems remaining. Everyone agrees with this. What is highly contestable, however, is that unionism operating the Windsor Framework is the means to achieve its objectives. Numerous lines of support are offered for this, which include the revised governance structures of the Windsor Framework, the EU now getting “it”, the “reset” UK-EU relationship, and the inclusion of the “Stormont brake” over new EU regulations. A novel entry is the reduced influence of the Irish Republic with the EU, which was supposedly material to us getting the sea border in the first place.

I’m sorry to say that all of this is for the birds. There is no sudden or miraculous change in understanding or relationships. The prospect of decent gains through governance is minimal, the Stormont brake is a nonsense, and the Irish Republic’s “influence” was always instrumental to the larger EU goal — helped along by the May government — of using the UK land border and lies about the Belfast Agreement in order to keep the UK on the hook of alignment, creating a politically useful sore in UK politics in the process. There is no incentive for movement by the EU with Sunak’s government, the Prime Minister having already conceded so much. The prospect of a formally aligning Labour government makes it all the less likely.

There is a plausibly coherent argument that despite all of this, the UK “economic union” remains significantly intact (monetary and fiscal policy, services and labour amongst other things) and therefore in relative terms the obstructions to the trade in goods shouldn’t be overdone. I have made something like this argument myself in response to the doomster tendencies in unionist anti-protocolism. Unionism still shouldn’t supinely give up on the UK internal market as though it doesn’t matter, because it has other things it likes or for the absence of an existential crisis.

The best response now to the Windsor Framework is in its looming implementation. The government is readying itself to implement it and supposedly intends to bring in legislation to do so without Stormont sitting. It would be folly, not pragmatism, for Donaldson to return to the executive and embrace the Windsor Framework, just as its many failings are about to be exposed.

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