Britain and the European Union (EU) have reached an agreement on new trade rules in Northern Ireland in hopes of resolving post-Brexit tensions in Europe and the island of Ireland. This comes after what many say was one of the most challenging and controversial aspects of the United Kingdom’s (UK) split from the European Union, the issue of imports and border checks on goods in Northern Ireland as it shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland.
The new deal, called the Windsor Framework, will deliver smooth flowing trade within the UK, protecting Northern Ireland’s place in the union, and safeguarding the sovereignty of Northern Ireland, according to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, speaking at a press conference in Windsor. The purpose of the Windsor Framework is to fix issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In 2019, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the EU reached the Northern Ireland Protocol deal as an addendum to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the EU. This meant that goods didn’t need to be checked between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland — an EU member state. Notably, the usual protocol for the existence of a border between an EU member state and a non-EU nation like the UK would require infrastructure in the form of customs posts. However, shared history makes this protocol difficult to implement.
During a 30-year period from the late 1960s to 1998 known as the Troubles, unionists and loyalists wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the UK, and Irish nationalists and republicans wanted to leave the UK and join a united Ireland. The two sides were involved in incidents that resulted in more than 3,500 deaths, 52% of which were civilians, 32% were members of the British security forces, and 16% were members of paramilitary groups like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). During the conflict, security posts along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland became a target for the paramilitary groups fighting for a united Ireland.
To circumvent the need for border infrastructure after Brexit, the Northern Ireland Protocol made it so that Northern Ireland would remain within the EU’s regulatory sphere, and that goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would be checked before they arrived, effectively imposing a sea border. For pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland, however, the deal induced feelings of being cut off from the rest of the UK and being forced closer to the Republic. Additionally, disputes about the arrangement have, in part, been a barrier to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was suspended last year. The assembly is a key part of the Good Friday Agreement — the peace deal that marked the end of the Troubles — and signifies the sharing power between unionists and republicans. Trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has also been affected to the extent that the UK never fully implemented the protocol.
That’s where the Windsor Framework comes in. According to Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the new deal will improve existing protocol in three essential areas.
Unlike the previous deal, the Windsor Framework will protect the flow of free trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by creating green and red lanes for goods flowing into Northern Ireland. Anything that might end up entering the Republic of Ireland will be placed in the red lane for checks before entering Northern Ireland. However, items remaining in Northern Ireland will flow freely. Sunak added that new rules affecting different good, like product labeling, will be phased in at different times for smoother implementation. The deal will also allow the UK government to determine VAT rates applicable to Northern Ireland, as opposed to the current system determined by the EU.
The most controversial part of the new deal comes in the form of the “Stormont Brake” which would allow Northern Ireland’s devolved government to pull an “emergency brake” on any new EU laws from being imposed on the province. If the brake is pulled, the Westminster government would be given a veto over the law. The Stormont Brake raises questions over the imposition of EU law on a sovereign country and creates confusion about how the brake will be used.
“If the Northern Ireland government pulls the brake but the British government doesn’t use its veto, there will be tension between Westminster and Northern Ireland,” according to a CNN report. “If one party in the Northern Irish government wants to use the brake but another doesn’t (Northern Ireland’s government must be made up of politicians from both the Unionist and Republican communities) the government in Westminster might have to effectively pick a side.”
The deal also raises questions on the manufacturing of medical devices for import to or export from Northern Ireland. Ireland has a reputation for medical device manufacturing and hosts 18 of the top 25 medtech companies, including Medtronic, Abbott, Johnson & Johnson, and Boston Scientific, all of which could be impacted by the changing trade protocol. While currently unknown, the amount at which this will impact the industry will come into focus after the implementation of the deal.
Manufacturing Northern Ireland released a statement after the announcement of the framework commending the EU and UK government on its efforts to find solutions to the Northern Ireland Protocol, but also encouraged continued collaboration as businesses adjust.
“From the outset our priority has been to secure an agreed, durable outcome that protects our consumers and enables our businesses to thrive,” according to the organization. “Reaching an agreement is an important step in securing the stability and certainty businesses have been seeking. While we do not doubt that many issues will have been resolved, others may remain and/or arise in future, so we would encourage the UK and EU to continue with a constructive, solutions-focussed [sic] approach as businesses adjust to the new arrangements.
The organization also called for time and space to unpack the new approach with its members.
“It is our shared aspiration that this agreement will deliver a unique platform that unlocks economic growth and investment, but we will now need time and space to work through the technical detail with our members,” according to Manufacturing Northern Ireland.