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Four Questions From the Latest Northern Ireland Brexit Debate

Another week, another Northern Ireland Brexit protocol, rebadged as the Windsor Framework.

Another week, another round of news stories from Westminster journalists opining on its outcome as a win or a potential banana skin for the latest Tory Prime Minister.

Another week, another round of people who understand little of Northern Irish politics professing to be experts in the troubles and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Another week, another in which I ask; does the public care at all?

By now it isn’t really news that the electorate has shown very little appetite for understanding how Brexit impacts the island of Ireland. Sausages on Northern Irish shelves isn’t the top priority for plumbers in Sunderland.

However, I do think this is a week where we have learned a lot about the two leaders of the two biggest political parties in Westminster.

Broadly, I think there are four key things to consider from this week:

  1. Why is Keir Starmer’s team not claiming vindication?

  2. To what extent is the Stormont Break even possible?

  3. If the DUP abstain, where does that leave power-sharing and the Northern Ireland Assembly?

  4. Is Sunak secure from Boris Johnson now he has achieved something the fluffy-haired-cicero-bluffer couldn’t manage?

Let’s look at each in turn.

Firstly, the airwaves have been littered with right-wing news channels running away with themselves to claim this is the greatest Brexit breakthrough since the last Brexit breakthrough. They claim of course that this Brexit breakthrough may have come sooner than the last Brexit breakthrough if it wasn’t for the opposition who are not involved in fashioning any of these Brexit breakthroughs, challenging key assumptions in the original but four, Brexit breakthroughs.

In other words, if Keir Starmer, when Shadow Brexit Secretary in 2019, would have just kept quiet and stopped pointing out that the previous Northern Ireland protocol would lead to problems with trade, medicine and veterinary standards (to name but a few), then the Government of the day would have been able to deal with these issues three years ago.

It’s for the birds.

Let’s quickly recap:

Keir Starmer circa 2019
“The Northern Ireland Protocol will lead to major delays in food distribution and trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK with a border down the Irish Sea.”
Boris Johnson circa 2019
“No it won’t. Typical Labour talking down this great country. Captain Hindsight doesn’t know what he is talking about”.
Rishi Sunak on the floor of the House of Commons, as Prime Minister, 27th February 2023
Three quarters of the food in Northern Ireland’s supermarkets comes from the rest of the UK, yet the protocol applied the same burdens on shipments from Cairnryan to Larne as between Holyhead and Dublin…supermarket staples like sausages banned altogether. More delays. More cost. Less choice.

Starmer proven right, by Rishi Sunak. Vindication.

Keir Starmer circa 2019
“The Northern Ireland Protocol will lead to major issues with medicines, pets and food shortages between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK with a border down the Irish Sea.”
Boris Johnson circa 2019
“No it won’t. Typical Labour talking down this great country. Captain Hindsight doesn’t know what he is talking about”.
Rishi Sunak on the floor of the House of Commons, as Prime Minister, 27th February 2023
“The UK Government have a responsibility to protect the supply of medicines to all its citizens, but our ability to do that was constrained by the protocol.
The protocol banned quintessentially British products going to Northern Ireland. When people wanted to import oak trees to mark Her late Majesty’s platinum jubilee, the protocol stood in their way. It suspended the historic trade in seed potatoes between Scotland and Northern Ireland. If implemented, it would create massive costs and bureaucracy for people travelling around the UK with their pets, disrupting family life and our family of nations.”

Starmer proven right, by Rishi Sunak. Vindication.

So, the question might well be, why was Starmer so reluctant to claim the victory? Instead, news outlets have been able to paint the Labour Leader as the blocker to progress, when in fact if the Tories had listened to Starmer in 2019, these issues could have been fixed much sooner. More Captain Foresight than Captain Hindsight. Why not point that out?

Next is a question about whether EU law will still be applied in Northern Ireland. Despite promises that it wouldn’t and despite claiming over 1,000 EU laws have been ripped up in Northern Ireland, the simple truth is that EU law will still apply in Northern Ireland.

However instead of Westminster getting involved or having to ratify the EU laws taking effect in Northern Ireland, Sunak has devolved the responsibility to the Northern Ireland Assembly to do this. For any EU law to be stopped from taking effect in Northern Ireland, 30 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly must object, and the joint UK-EU panel meet to arbitrate over the dispute. The Stormont Brake, as they have named it.

As Catherine Barnard, a professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge said this week, the chances of this mechanism being used is virtually impossible as it is so unlikely to get 30 MLAs to object. In other words, the DUP will have to accept that EU laws are more than likely to take effect in Northern Ireland, with no democratic say, forever more.

Which leads us to the third question of what happens if the DUP fail to re-join the Northern Ireland Assembly and elect the first-ever Sinn Fein First Minister of Northern Ireland. In the Stormont elections of May 2022, Sinn Fein became the largest party giving Michelle O’Neil the right to be First Minister. She has never been installed and the Assembly hasn’t met since the elections. If the DUP cannot get on board with this Protocol, and they refuse to re-join the Assembly, it is hard to see how the Assembly will ever be able to function again. Stormont will remain dormant. Meaning the new Windsor Framework’s flagship mechanism of the Stormont Break will be meaningless from day one.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The DUP failed to sign up to the Good Friday Agreement until 2007. They have history at holding and negotiating hard. They’ll likely abstain on any Westminster vote on the Windsor Framework. However context is critical and crucially for the first time in the history of the country, there is now a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland. This isn’t 2007 and Sinn Fein have proven they can win national elections in the North as well as looking likely to win national elections in the South of Ireland. The DUP’s hard line will be tested like never before in the months to come and they could find themselves losing Westminster seats in the 2024 election.

The success of this over the next few months will determine whether the threat of Boris Johnson returning before the next General Election has been quashed by Sunak. As I pointed out last week, Sunak is likely to head to the polls in May 2024. The window of opportunity for Johnson to strike is narrowing each day. Then there is Johnson’s Privileges Committee hearing on 20th March which could see him suspended from parliament. All this means Sunak is strengthened. For now. As Theresa May found to her cost, whilst the public don’t necessarily care about the detail of Northern Irish politics, they do care about whether the British Prime Minister is respected in Belfast. And on the forging of this perception, the DUP hold the cards and they are not to be underestimated.

Whilst the public won’t bother themselves with the intrinsic detail of the Windsor Framework, the underlying problem remains of needing to marry the clean Brexit that Conservative MPs promised, with the reality of a land border with the EU on the island of Ireland, meaning EU laws will still be implemented in the United Kingdom whether we are in or are out.

As is becoming the custom, this could very well end up being the latest square that a Brexit-supporting Conservative Prime Minister, just isn’t able to circle.


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