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Artillery Row

The Conservatives’ Windsor knot

Rishi Sunak must rethink the Windsor Framework

The Windsor Fairmount Hotel is a billionaire’s large, glitzy, mock Jacobean establishment, seeking to gain status by sharing its name with the nearby Windsor Castle. It was also reportedly mis-sold to local planning officials and may consequently be demolished.

It was therefore a fitting location for our Prime Minister’s attempt to gain ersatz Royal approval for his mis-sold Windsor Framework, the relabelled Northern Ireland Protocol that places a border in the Irish Sea in the UK. It is up for debate whether it will share the same fate as the hotel from which it took its name.

The fundamental problem with the Windsor Framework is that it places the UK’s external border in the wrong place. Rather than seek to minimise our post-Brexit border with the EU “north/south”, where each state has its only land border and comparatively little trade takes place, it seeks to impose the border the EU requires in the Irish Sea. Cutting the UK in two and severing Northern Ireland from its vastly dominant UK supply chains would, not incidentally, produce lower prices in Northern Ireland’s shops than in the Republic.

Treating Northern Ireland as separate to the UK was the original sin of the Brexit negotiations, something agreed by Theresa May and Gavin Barwell in December 2017. The UK, in an epic failure of diplomacy, took responsibility for solving all of the EU’s external border issues by needlessly making its border headache our problem. Either Brussels was going to build its full fat trade border against the UK in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, or it was not. Thanks to May and Barwell’s incompetence, at best the EU never had to face up to this dilemma. Instead, almost certainly because of their idiotic effort to drive the Unionists away from Brexit in the hung parliament of 2017, May and Barwell decided to make the EU’s insuperable problem (whether to build a border they claimed they wouldn’t countenance) a UK liability. This led to Theresa May’s Protocol, which some hoped would allow them to drive the whole UK into a similar vassal relationship. That was not to be, but the damage was done.

Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill was a belated but welcome attempt to undo the damage done in 2017. It was this Bill that Rishi Sunak inherited when he became Prime Minister.

Despite the promises made by all candidates during the leadership campaigns to persevere with the Bill, on entering Number 10 the Prime Minister’s priorities changed. Out went commitments to the UK’s internal market, democracy and sovereignty, and in came new priorities: to gain international approval for his new Government and “demonstrate competence”. If that meant hanging Northern Ireland’s Unionists out to dry, so be it.

Keir Starmer’s incoming government will have the huge legal and political advantage of the EU still being part of the EU body politic, thanks to Sunak’s protocol — another problem which should not be underestimated. Ever fuller alignment is much closer in the next parliament than people currently realise.

Number 10 had made the Protocol worse, whilst claiming the opposite

A triumph of style over substance emerged from rounds of secret talks between the EU and Dublin. Number 10’s advisers, along with their willing accomplices in the Northern Ireland Office, set about creating a fable. Negotiated in secrecy outside of the normal channels, by furtive unofficial and official “advisers”, they decided to rename the Protocol whilst leaving its substance intact. Gone would be the temporary “grace periods” that had lightened the touch of the unworkable original; in came some minor unilateral EU concessions. The upshot was that they had made the Protocol worse, whilst claiming the opposite. With the deal done, they waited for the moment to launch it in the shadow of Windsor Castle.

To a political class bored of Brexit, their claim to have solved the Northern Ireland issue was an easy sell. Many, Ministers included, were so keen to believe the claims that they dared not read the documents for fear they may discover the truth. It was inevitable that hard, undeniable facts would emerge when it came to be implemented. That day of truth is fast approaching: it is 1 October.

There are a multitude of problems with the Windsor Framework, ranging from pets to plants and platitudes to parcels. I will dwell on just two: the much vaunted “Green Lane” for goods coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and the equally praised commitment to “unfettered” access for Northern Ireland goods exported to Great Britain — something on which the Government hangs its “best of both worlds” claim.

The Green Lane

Up until now, supplies to Northern Ireland Supermarkets from GB have been subject to “grace periods” allowing trade to continue. Other retailers have fared less well.

With the Windsor Framework, that goes. It will be replaced with a green lane that includes a number of requirements, including “Not for EU” labelling. With a month to go, however, the hauliers who need to operate it have not been given the necessary details as to how to use it. Will they be able to use “groupage”, to minimise costs? What papers, forms and customs information will be required? Will it be so difficult guaranteeing products stay in Northern Ireland that they actually use the “Red” lane instead? Will the whole UK eventually be labelled “Not for EU”? We don’t know.

Fettering Northern Ireland’s unfettered access to Great Britain

What goes from Northern Ireland into Great Britain is ultimately the choice of the UK. Even back in 2017, the UK government guaranteed “unfettered” access for Northern Ireland’s exports to GB (and bizarrely committed as much to the EU — see para 50).

There is one small problem with the promise of “unfettered” access for Northern Ireland products into the GB market. Who decides what is made in Northern Ireland? How do they prove it, and what paperwork will you need to show you are worthy of unfettered access — without that paperwork itself becoming a “fetter”?

This week the UK shone a bit more light on the issue of “unfettered access”, seeking to fetter it at least in terms of food products. Again, there have been no detailed rules. There is none of the “rules of origin” you see in most trade deals, no explanations of what paperwork is required. The Government can not have it two ways — either it’s “unfettered”, and all EU and Irish goods can move from the South into Northern Ireland and into GB unhindered, or it’s fettered. Does the UK really want an open door into its own market? The EU knows the benefit to itself, at least, which is why it tried to get the UK to commit to an open door in its October 2021 package.

The UK’s commitment appears to have unravelled. There will not be “unfettered” access for Northern Irish goods; it was always just a platitude. In the last few weeks, GB News has reported that some Northern Ireland containers have been stopped in Great Britain with customs papers demanded. Why? Presumably, the UK realises it needs to deter EU goods from taking advantage of Northern Ireland as a backdoor into the GB market. Will this become a norm? As for now, there are no answers.

Come 1 October, there is uncertainty as to how and even whether the whole Windsor Framework will work as billed, or whether it will just sever Northern Ireland’s economic links to Great Britain.

Would the EU agree to setting the UK’s rules?

This should concern Unionist Conservatives and pro-Brexit Conservatives. Unionists in Scotland and the rest of the UK should be concerned about the constitutional and economic division that is created with Northern Ireland. Pro-Brexit voters in GB should also care about Northern Ireland for another reason: if the Conservatives do not sort out the Windsor Framework knot, then Sir Keir Starmer will be left with the job. He could easily use Sunak’s Framework to align the whole UK with the EU — and feign solid Unionist reasons for doing so. The Windsor Framework suspended the fragile political balance in Northern Ireland based on a bicommunal settlement. The Framework instead allows for a majoritarian vote (under Article 18) on whether to keep the Protocol. This vote can happen in the absence of Stormont, and it will be lost. Sinn Fein with the SDLP and the supposedly neutral Alliance Party will vote in favour of the Irish Sea Border.

However, if this vote does not gather support from the Unionist Community (it won’t), the UK has committed to a review of the Framework within two years “with regard to any new arrangements it believes could command cross-community support”. This will land, if the polls don’t change, on Sir Keir’s desk in Number 10. What will it say? It won’t recommend that the border shall be placed where it should be — the Nationalists will veto that as they did with Theresa May.

That leaves the only other possibility — that the rest of the UK should align with Northern Ireland as the only way to remove the Irish Sea Border. The Unionists might agree, given they have already had to endure EU alignment at the behest of GB. Would the EU agree? Would the EU agree to setting the UK’s rules? Well, for a price no doubt, we would be straight back to Chequers.

Left untended, the Protocol/Windsor Framework might end up doing under Labour what it failed to do under the Conservatives: turn the whole of the UK into an EU vassal state. To avoid that, the Prime Minister needs to act now.

Fortunately, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is still alive, just, and it could be revived in the new session of Parliament in November under the Parliament Act. With the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in force, the Government would have the tools to finish the job, remove the Protocol and reintegrate Northern Ireland fully into the United Kingdom.

There would be a big electoral prize for the Prime Minister in sorting out the issue once and for all. Stormont would be back in business, to great acclaim, running its public services just as appallingly as it always has done. Pro-Brexit Tories will have a reason to vote Conservative, and the Prime Minister will look decisive, acting in the interests of the UK over that of the Irish and EU administrations. The Union could be put to the fore in the election — something that would benefit the Scottish Conservatives. Let’s hope the Government can take this clear path before it’s too late.

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