The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which resulted in the current Northern Irish political settlement, called for a “frictionless” border between the 2 parts of Ireland.
The Brexit deal Boris “BoJo” Johnson struck with the EU was always going to be a bust because it put this “frictionless” border at risk. BoJo’s deal required a border to exist between the EU-member Republic of Ireland and the UK-belonging (and thus non-EU) Northern Ireland.
The anomalous status of Northern Ireland with regard to EU trade was papered-over by the Northern Ireland protocol in BoJo’s deal. The NI protocol upheld the principle of the “frictionless” border, but also maintained the need for checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the latter now basically being a part of the EU’s single market). The was much mirth in mainstream and social media about BoJo having to place this border somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea.
“BoJo” sold this fudge as part of a misleadingly-named “oven-ready deal” before preening that it was he who had been able to “Get Brexit Done” (like Donald Trump the man is not renowned for his modesty). This deception, sold to Brits by the rightwing press, gave him an 80-seat majority in the subsequent general election.
BoJo conned the EU into thinking he could be trusted when he signed the treaty enshrining Northern Ireland’s special status with regard to the EU/Irish Republic— a status he had no intention of upholding. He tried to put through parliament a bill that would allow the UK to ignore the NI protocol that it had negotiated with the EU, a clear breach of international law.
Enter the current prime minister Rishi Sunak.
Like all ambitious Tory politicians thirsting for high office, Sunak had campaigned for Brexit and leaving the single market. So dominant is the party’s europhobic wing (Fintan O’Toole calls it “the grievance factory”) that this has been the only route for advancement within the party for at least a decade.
In Sunak’s mind then there was not even room for membership of the single market while not being in the EU (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland have this status).
Realizing that BoJo’s NI protocol was a hole that could not be squared, Sunak, now prime minister, decided to renegotiate the protocol with the EU.
Like many “successful” politicians, Sunak is blessed with a very short memory. He had campaigned in the 2019 general election under BoJo’s leadership with a manifesto proclaiming that the NI protocol was the piece of political alchemy that would render Brexit rock-like and pristine.
The election won, Sunak went on to become chancellor of the exchequer/finance minister without even a nod at the broken-backed NI protocol over the next 3 years.
Now prime minister, he was willing finally to acknowledge that the protocol had been a piece of doggy gonads all along (well, this was not quite the language he used).
Sunak negotiated a new Northern Ireland deal with the EU which he called the Windsor Agreement.
The key feature of the Agreement or Framework is that there will be a “green lane” almost completely removing checks for goods headed from the rest of the UK to the North of Ireland, and a “red lane” with more rigorous checks for goods likely to move on into the EU. Given that some EU law will have continued validity in the North of Ireland, a so-called “Stormont brake” will superintend its operation.
Northern Ireland’s Assembly is not currently sitting, because the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) withdrew cooperation with opposing parties over the protocol.
Sunak’s agreement allows 30 of the 90 members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) from 2 or more parties to petition against changes to EU rules operating in the North of Ireland. The UK government will then consult the EU, and the rule will be in abeyance unless and until both sides decide it should operate once more. The UK government said that “This would give the UK an unequivocal veto”, while also stipulating that the brake “will not be available for trivial reasons” but only if the rule “has a ‘significant impact specific to everyday life’ that is liable to persist”. The “brake” is clearly intended as an inducement for the DUP to return to power-sharing in the Assembly.
The Windsor Framework will have to be approved by the UK parliament. The Labour and Scottish National Party (SNP) opposition have already said they would vote to support the Framework, meaning that it will be voted through despite any opposition from the Tory benches. Sunak has not so far said when he will bring the required legislation to parliament.
Opposition to the Agreement has been muted– the Tory Euro-bashing wing has remained silent, and the DUP has said it would need to study the Agreement’s details before returning to power-sharing. Outside the Stormont Assembly, Northern Irish businesses generally welcomed news of the Agreement.
When rumours of the Agreement’s introduction started to emerge, BoJo opposed the ditching of his protocol and refused to back a new deal. But BoJo’s intransigence will amount to nothing without the DUP, since getting a handful of Tory headbangers to side with him when a vote is taken in parliament will be an obvious lesson in futility.
The primary problem remaining for Sunak (there are others of course, not least maintaining a semblance of unity in his fractious party) is that the UK now has in effect 2 Brexits. One for the North of Ireland (now remaining in the single market), and the other for the rest of the UK (remaining outside the single market).
The SNP is particularly incensed by the Windsor Agreement. In the 2016 EU referendum Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU (62% vs 38%), with N Ireland just behind (Remain 55.8% vs Leave 44.2%), while
Wales (Leave 52.5% Remain 47.5%) and England (Leave 53.4% Remain 46.6%) voted against.
The SNP is now arguing that given the referendum result, its case for having membership of the single market is just as strong as Northern Ireland’s.
Sunak went to Belfast immediately after the Agreement’s introduction to brag about Northern Ireland benefiting from being in the EU single market. He conveniently forgot to say why the whole of the UK should not be allowed to enjoy the same benefits— though the SNP and the commentariat soon drew this inconsistency to everyone’s attention.
Sunak is now a de facto anti-Brexiter (or at least an ambivalent Brexiter) leading a pro-Brexit party. His life is going to be even more interesting as a result.
Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.