The Windsor Framework and the Fraught Politics of Brexit and Northern Ireland

Joe Zammit-Lucia

4 mins - 2 de Marzo de 2023, 07:05

It has been hard to miss the collective sigh of relief in the UK and across the EU that has greeted the just concluded Windsor framework. The Northern Ireland protocol agreed as part of the UK’s exit from the EU was a mess. It did not serve anyone’s purpose.

What has been achieved through the Windsor framework was, until now, thought by many to have been impossible. The framework is not perfect because nothing in politics ever is or ever can be. Yet, as the veteran Conservative member of parliament Liam Fox put it in the House of Commons, it's a relief finally to have a UK government that under-promises and over-delivers. A not-so-subtle dig at the chaotic reign of Boris Johnson – all bluster with little or no substance. The EU, too, has moved much further than its original hardline, uncompromising position.

Yet the drama is not yet quite over.

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The politics of Northern Ireland have always been fraught, highly emotional, extremist (on both sides), and bound up with visceral issues of competing national identities – British and Irish. Despite all of that, much progress has been made over the decades. Margaret Thatcher managed to give the Irish government a say over Northern Ireland affairs and carried the Unionist community along with it. Tony Blair negotiated the Good Friday Agreement that brought lasting peace to the province. Self-government in Northern Ireland brought Unionist and Republican politicians to work together in the Stormont Assembly.

Brexit and the messy Northern Ireland Protocol threatened these established but highly fragile arrangements.

The remaining challenges with the Windsor framework now lie in bringing on board the Brexit extremists in Westminster (who want Britain to have nothing at all to do with the EU) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. 

The DUP is being given time and space to consider their position on the framework. They have a balance to strike. Accept the framework, imperfect as it is, and move on so that voters, citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland can get on with their peaceful lives and build prosperity in the province. Or else behave in a way that is more usually associated with the political Left – put ideological purity above pragmatic politics.

In the long term, the latter approach rarely works. Should the DUP dig its heels in and refuse to rejoin the Stormont Assembly in protest at the framework, the UK government will have little option but to call for new elections in the province. The DUP, whose vote share has been shrinking, will likely find themselves in a weaker position following such elections.

The Brexit-ultras of the so-called 'European Research Group' (ERG) in Westminster face a similar choice – ideological purity versus electoral success

The Conservative party is well behind in the polls with an election due probably next year. Success with the Windsor framework – which brings with it the promise of the UK rejoining the EU Horizon research programme as well as enhanced cooperation with France on illegal immigration across the English Channel – would blunt one of the opposition Labour Party’s main electoral campaigning platforms – that they are the only party capable of establishing a more cooperative and less confrontational relationship with the EU – something that many British voters would like to see. It would start to change voters' views of the Conservative Party under Rishi Sunak and could bring back many still undecided voters.

Another Sunak masterstroke was giving responsibility for negotiating the framework to two former chairs of the ERG. In other words, this is an agreement negotiated and supported by two of their own.

The Windsor framework is a done deal. There is no requirement for it to be approved by the UK parliament though submitting it to a vote may be politically prudent. Such a vote would certainly be won since the opposition would support it. What remains is parochial politics – avoiding a fracture within the Conservative Party and cajoling the DUP into acceptance of the deal so that self-government in Northern Ireland can finally re-start.
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