It’s a day that, for a long while, looked like it would never arrive. Rishi Sunak has agreed a deal with the European Union on the heavily contested, post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.
It comes after years of lengthy and divisive negotiations, dating all the way back to when former Prime Minister Boris Johnson first signed the protocol deal in 2020. It was initially designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, by essentially moving the border to the Irish Sea.
But prominent unionists, such as those in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), thought this undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the UK - as checks had to be conducted on products moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, hardline Brexiteers also opposed the protocol, since it meant Northern Ireland remained inside the EU’s single market.
However, these issues may at long last be solved. With his newly announced ‘Windsor Framework’, Sunak has made trade and the flow of goods through Northern Ireland far easier, by, in his words, “removing any sense of border in the Irish Sea”. This will be done via a ‘green lane’ for goods crossing the Irish Sea and destined to stay in Northern Ireland, which will be subject to significantly reduced checks and paperwork - and a ‘red lane’ for goods continuing into Ireland and the EU single market, which will undergo normal checks.
Elsewhere, Northern Ireland is more firmly planted within the UK. The country is no longer tied to tax policies created in Brussels, with UK tax decisions set to take effect instead. Similarly, medicines approved in the UK will also now be sold and prescribed in Northern Irish pharmacies - and pets travelling to Northern Ireland no longer have to have vet-issued health certificates or proof of an up-to-date rabies vaccination.
‘A huge breakthrough’
Sunak described these changes as a “huge breakthrough”, and, to be fair to the Prime Minister, these are concessions that many thought were not possible in the years of hostility post-Brexit. But, even in making the EU soften its initial hardline approach, Sunak seems to have managed to keep the union’s chiefs on side - which is crucial.
So far, this appears to be his main victory. The geniality between Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen was clear to see as they announced their new deal yesterday. The European Commission President described the agreement as “historic” and the beginning of a “new chapter”, while also hailing a “stronger relationship” between the UK and the EU as a result of the negotiations.
She was also exceedingly positive about the Prime Minister - frequently referring to him as “dear Rishi” and praising his “very constructive attitude” when it came to solving problems on the protocol deal. This latter point has been taken by many as a dig at Boris Johnson, who, despite claiming in 2019 he had an “oven-ready” deal, never quite managed to end the stalemate on Northern Ireland.
Perhaps then a large part of these successes comes down to Sunak’s attitude towards negotiations. It’s fair to say that he and his former boss have pretty different characteristics: Sunak is calmer, less showy, and more business-like than Johnson, and this may have won over key figures in the EU.
‘Areas of concern’
But arguably, an even tougher challenge lies ahead for Sunak. His next step is to win the support of the DUP, who are yet to give their final verdict on the new agreement.
The party’s leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said the Northern Ireland deal represents “significant progress”, but that there are still “key areas of concern” that remain. Another DUP MP, Ian Hunter, said that the Windsor Framework simply does not “cut the mustard” - so it’s unclear as of yet what the overriding viewpoint within the party is, and it’s likely that they’ll keep their cards close to their chests for as long as possible.
Also of concern for Sunak will be the hardline Tory Brexiteers, whose backing he needs to secure in order to avoid an in-party rebellion and any further blows to his authority. Interestingly, we’ve heard a bit more from key figures in this group. Northern Ireland minister and notorious Eurosceptic Steve Baker told Sky News: “I would resign if I felt I couldn’t support the deal. So, you know, I’m backing this with a good heart.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Secretary and former chairman of the Tory European Research Group, Chris Heaton-Harris, wrote a lengthy piece on the Conservative Party website explaining why he backs the deal - and urging colleagues to follow suit.
But these of course are government figures - and so there will be many backbench Tories who perhaps aren’t so happy but haven’t spoken publicly yet. There are also many Conservative Party MPs who are eagerly awaiting Johnson’s verdict on the deal, meaning the former Prime Minister’s role in this battle isn’t quite over.
These MPs, along with the members of the DUP, will be closely studying the fineprint of the deal. Of course, we’ve heard from Sunak and Von der Leyen about all of the so-called “successes” of the agreement, but people are already starting to pick apart some of the Windsor Framework’s more hidden features.
For instance, there are grumblings about the continuing role of the European Court of Justice in Northern Irish affairs, with officials conceding that the Windsor Framework does not remove EU law or European jurisdiction from Northern Ireland.
It’s likely other issues will be brought up too, with one MP summarising the situation as such: “This is like a budget. It sounds good on day one until the details begin to unravel.”
‘The way forward’
Sunak has already begun the battle of attempting to bring some of the more tricky figures onto his side. He made an impassioned speech to MPs to vote on the side of the new agreement during his House of Commons address on Monday (27 February), commenting: “Let us seize the opportunity of this moment, the certainty of an agreement that fixes the problems we faced, commands broad support and consensus and offers us, at last, the freedom to move forward together.”
The Prime Minister continued: “That is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve, that is what the Windsor Framework delivers. As a Conservative, a Brexiteer, and a unionist, I believe passionately with my head and my heart that this is the right way forward – right for Northern Ireland, right for our United Kingdom.”
So there’s no doubt he’ll give it his best shot - but the questions that remain are will the DUP be convinced, and will the hardline, backbench Brexiteers allow Sunak to have this victory? Here’s the thing: if the Prime Minister does manage to pull this off, it will be a huge personal victory, and the moment that moves his premiership along from its era of public sector strikes and NHS chaos. He’ll be able to speak about the triumph for years - and his supporters can frame him as the one who did what those before him couldn’t.
But that’s more of a fantasy world. If the opposite happens, and Sunak is perceived to have failed, his premiership moves into increasingly treacherous waters. As is so often the case with politics, it’s a waiting game. So over the next few days, weeks, or months, we’ll watch as the Prime Minister finally ends years of post-Brexit wrangling and stalemates - or as the precarious structure comes down once again.