Stormont (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The Windsor Framework is failing

A new Centre for Brexit paper is worth taking seriously

Artillery Row

Over the past week, political pundits have again debated at length the merits of Brexit, as well as its problems, to mark the seventh anniversary of the referendum result. Unfortunately, the discussion rarely touched upon the status of Northern Ireland, which was effectively left behind in the European Union so that the rest of Britain could make its departure.

The government now claims that the seemingly endless negotiations with Brussels about the province are over. According to Rishi Sunak, his Windsor Framework agreement made the Northern Ireland Protocol workable, by removing “any sense” of a border in the Irish Sea.

The deal fell far short of restoring their place in the UK’s internal market

In the minds of Ulster’s unionists, the deal fell far short of restoring their place in the UK’s internal market or providing free flowing trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. That’s why the Centre for Brexit Policy think tank published a new document at Westminster today, endorsed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MPs, aimed at replacing the protocol with a form of “mutual enforcement”. Under this arrangement, the UK and the EU would police each other’s regulations, and exporters who broke the rules would be prosecuted, which was a solution previously championed by the late Lord Trimble.

In the document’s foreword, the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson wrote that the proposals could potentially create a “sound and stable foundation” for the restoration of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government. Since February 2022, his party has boycotted the institutions at Stormont in protest at the protocol, which kept the province de facto in the EU’s single market for goods, whilst the rest of the UK left.

There is no doubt that Brussels would reject this plan, just as it rejected similar arrangements proposed by Lord Frost when he was Brexit minister back in 2021. Keen europhiles will always follow the EU in deriding as fantastical any ideas that the bloc has spurned. Throughout the Brexit negotiations, everything was stupid, impractical and “magical thinking”, according to them, until, of course, it suddenly wasn’t.

On this occasion, though, the government is also likely to dismiss the paper, insisting that its framework solved the biggest problems with the Irish Sea border. Understandably, the news agenda has moved on from Sunak’s deal, even in Northern Ireland, but its inadequacies continue to emerge.

For example, a few weeks ago, DEFRA belatedly published guidance on how the new “green” and “red” lanes will work, when they come into operation in October, for goods moving between Great Britain and Ulster.

Previously, the foreign secretary James Cleverly promised that a new labelling regime, which determined that all products for Northern Ireland should be marked “Not for EU”, would apply UK wide. The DEFRA information revealed that this requirement would actually apply exclusively in the province, whilst any national set-up will only come into force in 2024, very likely after the Conservatives leave office and then only after a consultation.

It’s this kind of slipperiness that makes Ulster unionists wary of believing anything that this government claims.

The Windsor Framework easements tended to favour retail giants

Setting aside the inadequacies of the “green lane”, the University of Ulster’s senior economist Dr Esmond Birnie published figures recently that showed that roughly £2.6 billion of goods would pass through the red lane and undergo full customs formalities. He estimated that this figure amounts to 75 per cent of the province’s total purchases for processing.

Many companies are already diverting their supply chains away from Great Britain as a result. For a substantial number of businesses, this disruption will make their operations unsustainable. The Windsor Framework easements, such as they were, tended to favour retail giants like the national supermarkets, rather than manufacturers or companies that bring in smaller consignments from the rest of the UK.

In an extraordinary symbol of how this government has ceded control over Northern Ireland, at the start of June the EU published labyrinthine legislation setting out customs regulations for parcels moving between Great Britain and the province. These laws are now set in Brussels. Whereas previously unilateral “grace periods” applied, keeping packages, food and medicines moving, from October these will end.

The Windsor Framework was supposed to be an improvement on the current situation in Northern Ireland, but in areas like parcels and horticulture, it is likely to make things worse. This is particularly demoralising for unionists because this time even the UK insists that the arrangements will be permanent.

The Centre for Brexit Policy’s proposals for mutual enforcement are not, as they will be portrayed like Lord Frost’s command paper before them, unreasonable or fanciful. They are based on the perfectly rational idea that trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK poses no significant threat to the EU’s single market.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the paper will receive a fair hearing. The government seems fully committed to the pretence that the Windsor Framework removed the Irish Sea border. Ulster unionists, in contrast, cannot simply accept such an obvious falsehood. For the time being, that means no executive at Stormont and continued political instability in Northern Ireland.

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