Rishi Sunak’s new post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland has been signed off after the government crushed a rebellion of DUP and Tory backbenchers.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly formally adopted the so-called Windsor Framework with the EU’s Maros Sefcovic at a meeting in London on Friday.
It overhauls the border arrangements agreed by Boris Johnson in 2019, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, introducing a new system dubbed the Stormont Brake.
The Brake gives elected politicians in Northern Ireland a much bigger say over how EU goods rules apply to Northern Ireland.
Officials called it a ‘powerful democratic safeguard’ for the Northern Ireland Assembly, although the DUP’s opposition means it may not actually be used for some time.
The party has been boycotting the power-sharing agreement at Stormont’s devolved government since last year in protest at issues for which they blamed Mr Johnson’s version of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The stand-off continues despite the new deal, which DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says is not enough of an improvement for his party to return to Stormont.
Mr Johnson, his successor Liz Truss and former home secretary Priti Patel were among the 22 Tories who joined the DUP in opposing the new deal.
It won by an overwhelming 515 votes to 29, massively shoring up Mr Sunak’s influence as het did not have to rely on Labour votes.
Ahead of Friday’s meeting, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris warned there would be no prospect of renegotiating the deal.
Mr Cleverly said: ‘By formally approving the Windsor Framework, we are delivering on our commitment to provide stability and certainty for Northern Ireland.
What is the new Windsor Framework and how does it work?
The Windsor Framework is a new version of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a special set of rules for post-Brexit customs and immigrations along the Irish land border.
The rules are designed to avoid ‘hard border’ checks which officials feared might reignite sectarian tensions that fuelled the violence of The Troubles.
Mr Sunak’s deal aims to formally bring politicians from Northern Ireland’s devolved government into decision-making over the rules, which they were previously only able to influence by lobbying. Here’s how:
- The main reform, known as the Stormont Brake, allows members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs) to hold up new border rules if there are enough of them.
- If 30 or more MLAs object to a rule, the government in Westminster is obliged to review their concerns.
- Unless the objection is deemed to have been made in bad faith or for ‘trivial’ reasons, the rule is suspended for up to four weeks.
- It must then be reviewed by independent officials from the UK and EU via the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee.
- A ‘cross-community vote’ will then be held to decide whether a rule is permanently blocked.
- Special criteria must be met in order to satisfy UK ministers that an objection has been not made simply for political leverage. This includes a ‘detailed and publicly available written explanation’ showing a new EU rule is having a ‘significant’ impact on people in Northern Ireland.
- The EU also has the right to impose penalties if it concludes an objection has been lodged in bad faith.
The ins and outs of the new system have yet to be agreed, and will be thrashed out in further meetings with Northern Ireland’s political parties.
Overall the deal means that, when it comes to border arrangements, a typical MLA will have more influence than a backbench Westminster MP, but less than a government minister.
It gives them powers over post-Brexit rules not unlike the House of Lords, who cannot block new laws outright but can delay them and put them under greater scrutiny.
‘The framework is the best deal for Northern Ireland, safeguarding its place in the Union and protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
‘I look forward to further effective co-operation with the EU on key issues, such as security and energy.’
The Windsor Framework will also reform a number of other post-Brexit issues such as checks, paperwork, VAT and alcohol duty, but the Stormont Brake is the only issue which MPs have so far been given a vote on.
The foreign secretary and Mr Sefcovic, who is the European Commission vice president, also discussed Peace Plus, a scheme to promote reconciliation and cooperation across the Irish land border.
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