British lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Wednesday in favour of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s deal with the European Union to rewrite the rules on Northern Ireland trade.
The House of Commons voted 515-29 to back a key portion of the agreement, which is designed to resolve a thorny trade dispute that vexed UK-EU relations and triggered a political crisis in Belfast.
But Sunak faced a rebellion by about 20 fellow Conservatives, including his two immediate predecessors. Former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss had both said they would vote against the deal.
Johnson, who led Britain out of the EU in 2020, said the deal was “not acceptable” because it kept some EU laws in operation in Northern Ireland, restricting the United Kingdom’s ability to diverge from the bloc’s rules and “take advantage of Brexit”.
A hard-Brexit group of Conservative Party lawmakers known as the European Research Group also said it opposed the deal.
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The government easily won the vote with backing from the Labour Party and other opposition groups, along with most Conservative legislators.
Sunak’s agreement, known as the Windsor Framework, replaces elements of the Brexit divorce deal negotiated by Johnson, and hailed by him at the time as an “oven-ready” agreement.
Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Sunak said the framework was “a good deal for the people, families and businesses of Northern Ireland” and protects the region’s place in the United Kingdom.
Johnson’s deal imposed customs checks and other hurdles on goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in order to maintain an open border between the region and its EU neighbour, the Republic of Ireland. The open border is a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process.
Northern Ireland’s British unionist politicians strongly opposed the customs border, saying it undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. The Democratic Unionist Party walked out of the power-sharing semi-autonomous Belfast government a year ago in protest, leaving Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million people without a functioning administration.
The Windsor Framework removes most of the checks and is designed to ease the burden on businesses and to address the unionist concerns. It gives Northern Ireland politicians a mechanism, known as the Stormont Brake, to challenge new EU trade rules that could apply in the region – a key unionist demand.
But the Democratic Unionist Party is concerned the mechanism does not go far enough, and some elements of EU law will continue to apply in Northern Ireland.
The DUP’s eight lawmakers in the House of Commons also opposed the government in Wednesday’s vote, which was specifically on the Stormont Brake part of the deal.
The UK and the EU are set to formally adopt the Windsor agreement at a Friday meeting between British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and EU Brexit negotiator Maroš Šefčovič.