The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the President of the EU Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, struck a joyful tone when unveiling the details of the Windsor Framework. Sunak hailed a “new chapter” in UK-EU relations, while Von der Leyen even referred to her counterpart as “dear Rishi”. Their hope is that the deal will end years of stalemate and smooth trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Sunak gave a confident performance in the House of Commons and he will hope this is the reset his leadership needed. None of the usually loud Eurosceptic voices on the backbenches came out and denounced the deal, though many are unlikely to have had the chance to scrutinise it in full detail. The ominous silence from Boris Johnson, who has just seen his “oven ready Brexit deal” junked in the most public way, will be worth watching. Labour were true to their word in saying that they would support the deal the Government got. On the outside, many have praised the skill of the UK negotiating team for having got the EU to move on some of its crucial red lines.
Not quite. The Democratic Unionist Party are still reading through the document and, having been stung by the devil hiding amidst the detail of previous UK-EU deals, will be going through it with a fine toothcomb. One problem appears to have emerged early on – how the so-called “Stormont Brake” will work. Ian Paisley, the party’s MP for North Antrim, has said that in his view the European Court of Justice will remain the final arbiter and it is therefore not really a veto at all.
It is worth noting however that Paisley is prone to the odd solo run and that his party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, has been cautious in his response so far. Ultimately, the success of the deal hinges on the DUP feeling confident enough that they can resume power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, there are quibbles starting to emerge about how much bureaucracy has actually been cut back by the Framework, though it is worth noting the major business organisations in Northern Ireland are broadly happy. Former DUP leader at Westminster Nigel Dodds has also pointed out that the Government appear to have oversold how much the deal will allow Northern Ireland to benefit from UK state aid decisions.
The various parties involved will be given time to chew through the document. While a vote in the House of Commons is not scheduled to take place imminently, the real focus is on events in Belfast. Sunak, who is in Northern Ireland today to sell the deal, will be hoping that he has done enough, though hardliners in unionism will hold the DUP’s feet to the fire in the coming days.
Sunak will feel pleased that his more constructive approach to negotiating compared with that of previous UK Governments has led somewhere. Mass ministerial resignations have not materialised and for the moment, the ERG are on side. Movement on the Protocol should in theory allow for movement on other shared areas of interest with the EU, such the small boats crisis. If this starts a sequence of policy wins, then he and others around him may feel that the electoral tide may yet shift. However, with the DUP as yet undecided, the tentatively positive mood of today could quickly turn dark.
Andrew has written an opinion piece for The Spectator’s Coffee House considering how unionist politicians will respond in the coming days which can be read here
By Andrew McQuillan
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