The EU Commission and the British government have negotiated a bold and imaginative new framework for navigating Northern Ireland's special status.
'Yes' is a remarkably simple word. But not when the stakes are as dizzy as those facing Northern Ireland’s main unionist party, the DUP. Yet, a province somewhat smaller than Schleswig-Holstein is now challenged to make (or break) the EU-UK stalemate over trade relations.
What are these stakes? First came Good Friday Agreement (April, 1998) and then Brexit, the 2016 shock referendum that plunged EU-UK relations into years of bitter wrangling over the format of new political and trade relations. And now on February 27, this stalemate could be set to change. The new Protocol—called the Windsor Framework—has sketched out an imaginative new path for trade to take place between Northern Ireland and its EU neighbours (Republic of Ireland and wider mainland EU), while preserving the Union between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
Speaking recently at a Coca-Cola factory in Northern Ireland, the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was buoyant about the enormous potential of the new Framework: “Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position in the entire world (and European continent) in having privileged access not just to the enormous UK home market (fifth biggest in the world) but also the European Single Market. Nobody else has that. Only you guys. Only here.”
Surely, a mouth-watering economic opportunity for Northern Ireland (and, more indirectly for the wider UK)? But can the province now expect a phalanx of foreign investors?
Word 'on the ground' in Northern Ireland is less upbeat. The reason for this more cautious note is the Stormont Brake, an extraordinarily bold and imaginative piece of legislation. The Stormont Brake, like the brakes of a high-speed train, allows the Stormont Assembly (elected local Government) to veto the Framework, even after it becomes law. Interestingly, only a minority vote is required to activate the brake (merely 30 of the 90 representatives sitting in Stormont). This provision allows the most strongly skeptical unionist party (DUP) the chance to pull the Brake, should they secure support from 5 further delegates. Another knife-edge to scare away foreign investors?
This is what the EU and UK leaders do not want—further political and economic volatility in Northern Ireland. For this reason, the EU is scrambling to work out a set of provisions, ensuring the Stormont Brake gets applied in the most exceptional of circumstances.
As we have become increasingly conscious—politics and economics go hand in hand. Arguably, nowhere in the world is this most conspicuously true than in Northern Ireland. For over a year now, the economy has limped along without a government, following the DUP’s refusal to help elect a Speaker to the Assembly, in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Rishi Sunak may be hoping to solve more than a few problems, with the Westminster Framework–forcing the DUP into a Catch-22. Unless they cooperate in helping to reconvene the Stormont Assembly, sceptics of the Framework have no chance of applying the Stormont Brake. Of course, the DUP could decide to reject the Framework altogether. But what would be the alternative? This Framework is (probably) as good as it gets.
And as the UK Prime Minister is keen to stress, this Stormont Brake gives institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, a powerful new safeguard, eliciting consent from both Unionist and Nationalist representatives. In so doing, nothing has been lost of the Good Friday Agreement. And there is more to gain–the unique and enviable status of unfettered access to both the UK and the EU markets, with the opt-out of the emergency brake.
In a nail-biting finish to the turmoil of Brexit, the eyes of Europe and the UK are on Northern Ireland. With the world watching, saying 'NO' will not be easy.
Coverfoto: © European Union, 2023