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Any potential agreement could be scuppered if the DUP refuses to accept it. PA
Explainer

What does the 'breakthrough' Windsor Framework mean for Northern Ireland?

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen finalised the deal this afternoon.

LAST UPDATE | Feb 27th 2023, 8:40 PM

UK PRIME MINISTER Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have signed off on a “breakthrough” post-Brexit deal called the new “Windsor Framework”. 

Sunak described it as a “decisive breakthrough” on post-Brexit trading arrangements, while von der Leyen said they had both changed the original protocol.

Von der Leyen arrived in the UK this morning for talks on the revised deal. 

While any deal will spell changes to the Protocol, the DUP could refuse to accept it and continue to boycott Stormont, continuing the political stalemate in Northern Ireland. 

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson noted in the House of Commons this evening that “significant progress has been made”.

“Ultimately, my party will now assess all these proposed outcomes and arrangements against our seven tests,” he said, adding “and whether it respects and restores Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom”.

Brexiteers within the Conservative party could also try to sink the deal if they are unhappy with it and have called on Sunak to put it to a vote in the House of Commons. 

What does the Windsor Framework deal contain?

Sunak said the new agreement protects “Northern Ireland’s place within the union” and allows VAT and excise changes to be applied across the whole of the UK.

Speaking at a press conference, he said: 

“We’ve amended the legal text of the protocol to ensure we can make critical VAT and excise changes for the whole of the UK, for example alcohol duty, meaning our reforms to cut the cost of a pint in a pub will now apply in Northern Ireland.”

He said today’s agreement delivers the “smooth flow of trade within the United Kingdom. Goods destined for Northern Ireland will travel through a new green lane with a separate red lane for goods at risk of moving on to the EU”.

“Food retailers like supermarkets, restaurants and wholesalers will no longer need hundreds of certificates for every lorry and we will end the situation where food made to UK rules could not be sent to and sold in Northern Ireland,” said Sunak. 

“This means that if food is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, then it will be available on supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland,” he added.

The movement of plants from Britain to Northern Ireland has also been streamlined.

Rather than paying £150 per movement into Northern Ireland, growers and businesses can pay £120 a year to be part of the UK scheme, as they did before the Protocol came into force.

Pet owners visiting Northern Ireland from Great Britain but not travelling on to Ireland, will have to confirm that the pet is microchipped and will not move into the EU, as opposed to more rigorous checks imposed previously.

Referencing the process of sending parcels and VAT, he said:

“This means we have removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea. Second, we have protected Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

“We can make sure that the EU’s plan to reduce the VAT threshold by £10,000 will not apply in Northern Ireland and nor will the SME VAT directive that would have brought huge amounts of EU red tape for small businesses.”

Under the Framework, 2,000 Northern Ireland businesses will not need to register for VAT under a 2025 EU Directive.

He said the agreement would make drugs approved for use by the UK medicines regulator automatically available in Northern Ireland pharmacies.

In addition, the Northern Ireland Assembly will be able to “pull an emergency brake for changes to EU goods rules”, Sunak said. 

“If the brake is pulled, the UK Government will have a veto.”

The ‘Stormont Brake’ means the UK can veto new EU goods laws if they are not supported by both communities in Northern Ireland.

The Windsor Framework was described by the UK prime minister as a “turning point for the people of Northern Ireland”.

The agreement “fixes the practical problems” and “preserves the balance of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement”, he added. 

All parties in Northern Ireland will want to consider the agreement in detail, a process that will need time and care, said Sunak. 

The UK Parliament will have a vote on the deal “at the appropriate time”, said Sunak. 

Meanwhile, von der Leyen said she believes “we can now open a new chapter in our partnership, a stronger EU-UK relationship, standing as close partners, shoulder to shoulder now and in the future”. 

“For this to work, we have agreed on strong safeguards like IT access, labels and enforcement procedures that will protect the integrity of the European Union’s single market.”

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is the “sole and ultimate arbiter of EU law” and will have the “final say” on single market decisions, she said. 

“Indeed, the European Court of Justice is the sole and ultimate arbiter of EU law – that’s natural because it’s prescribed by the EU order. So the ECJ will have the final say in EU law and single market decisions,” said von der Leyen

Why did the Protocol need to be changed?

The Protocol agreement, signed by Boris Johnson in 2020, saw checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain begin taking place at ports in the North to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

The DUP has maintained that this is causing Northern Ireland to be treated differently to the rest of the UK and wants the checks removed.

It also called for a change in what it calls the “democratic deficit” of Northern Ireland being subject to EU rules while not having a say on them.

The role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which can settle trade disputes and take action against the UK if it believes that EU law is currently not being respected in Northern Ireland, and is also something the DUP and ERG wanted removed. 

In order to ease checks on goods, the UK government wanted to impose a two-lane system for goods entering Northern Ireland, which is now contained in the Windsor Framework. 

With reporting by Christina Finn and Press Association 

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