The Windsor Framework – dubious answers to wrong questions


‘The reality is that once again an English based government has made an important decision about Northern Ireland’s future without giving its political parties, never mind the population there, any say in the matter.’ 

By Geoff Bell

Rishi Sunak has said this new “Windsor Framework” will “end the uncertainty in Northern Ireland.”

There are at least three reasons why it will not.

One is in the nature of the deal. Its origin was in the Irish protocol which featured in the treaty overseeing the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. This caused ructions within the Tory party and howls of “surrender” from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who raged against the imposition of an EU/UK border in the Irish Sea.

These objectors said the protocol had to go. Well, it is not going. What has changed are features of its implementation. The Irish News columnist Brian Feeney summed up the limits of the changes: “There will still be checks at ports here. The north stays in the EU single market rules for goods and the European Court of Justice (ECJ) remains the ultimate arbiter on how EU law applies.”

There are also ambiguities. None more so than what has been termed the “Stormont break”, which was sold as giving the Northern Ireland parliament the right to reject EU laws. However, the fine print makes it clear that ultimately it will be the British government and the ECJ who will have the final say on such matters.

In other words, the deal has been over-spun.  The most ridiculous example was Sunak’s claim that it was “returning sovereignty” to people of Northern Ireland. As Feeney also says: “Not true: this devolved region has no sovereignty over anything, much less international trade.”

The reality is that once again an English based government has made an important decision about Northern Ireland’s future without giving its political parties, never mind the population there, any say in the matter. The colonial edict has been issued. It has even been blessed by the King: loyalists obey!

That raises the second reason why uncertainly will prevail, namely the unionists’ divisions over the deal. Whether the DUP will endorse it is unclear when these words are being written. There are those on the right wing of unionism who are urging disobedience, while others, especially in the business class have encouraged embracing the Windsor Framework.

The unionists dilemma is obvious. Backing the deal will be compromising with its seven principles they had said it had to abide by. Jonathan Tonge of Liverpool University has said it meets only 70 per cent of these.  Writing in the pro-unionist Belfast Telegraph, columnist Sam McBride says only two of the seven have been met. And then Boris Johnson weighed in, saying he could find it difficult to support the deal because it didn’t restore British control over the issues in sought to address.

To add to the unionists’ difficulties, backing the deal will also mean the return to power sharing in Northern Ireland and to Sinn Féin leading its executive, a consequence of it winning the Northern Ireland elections last May.

The avoidance of this prospect was, along with opposition to the protocol, why the DUP walked out of Stormont in the first place, a year ago. To the right of the DUP, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) has recently said they would never support an executive headed by Sinn Féin. There are council elections in Northern Ireland this May, and the DUP has become obsessive about losing votes to TUV.

On the other hand, to say “No” to the deal will leave the DUP largely friendless.  Johnson may be encouraging them to walk away, but even the DUP know by now that relying on him is the equivalent of building a house on blancmange. Accordingly, a negative reaction to Sunak’s deal would leave unionism even more isolated and unpopular than it currently is – in Britain and internationally.

And that raises the third reason why uncertainty will prevail. Namely, that Northern Ireland has becomes so inherently politically unstable it will retain a fragility whatever tactical choices the DUP make.  This is because it was created a hundred years ago to ensure there would be a pro-British statelet in at least part of Ireland, but today it no longer has an internal pro- British majority.  That is an embarrassment and difficulty for these who call themselves unionist in Britain and Northern Ireland. More importantly, it gives the state a precariousness that was not there before. What is now the point of “Northern Ireland”?

Unionists today are struggling to answer that, while the Tories and indeed Labour refuse to even address it. For example, both refuses to spell out the conditions under which a border poll will he held, despite this eventuality being part of the Good Friday Agreement to which everyone now swears allegiance. But such more fundamental questions are there and are looming large and larger. The Windsor Framework asked and has tried to answer immediate Irish questions. The biggest ones cannot be avoided for much longer.

  • The Twilight of Unionism by Geoff Bell is now available from Verso Books here.
Rishi Sunak welcomes the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen to Windsor to discuss the Northern Ireland talks. Picture by Simon Walker No 10 Downing Street under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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