The mechanics, paperwork, taxes and inspections of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland — for the movement of British medicines, pets, sausages, machine parts, seeds and eggs — has been a consuming issue between Belfast and London, and to a lesser extent, with Brussels.
Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland didn’t like how the territory was treated in the original Brexit deal, negotiated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2020. They complained that new customs checks and other controls on goods coming into the north from Great Britain undermined their connection with the rest of the United Kingdom. And so they have been boycotting Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, creating paralysis within the executive and assembly in Belfast — while extremists stoke fears of a return to sectarian violence.
Under Johnson, the British government introduced a bill to unilaterally override that part of the Brexit deal — which in turn aggravated European Union leaders in Brussels, who took Britain to court, charging that it was eroding trust and poised to violate international law.
Sunak and von der Leyen appeared to be on better terms at a news conference in Windsor, England, on Monday. They heaped praise on each other for their commitment and courage, as they celebrated what are essentially tweaks to a side trade deal between huge economies.
Sunak called it a “decisive breakthrough.” The pound rose against the dollar as markets reacted.
Von der Leyen called the deal “historic” and said it would allow Britain and the E.U. to begin a “new chapter.”
Hoping, too, to move beyond the stalled politics of old, the two leaders rebranded the Brexit deal’s “Northern Ireland Protocol” as the “Windsor Framework.”
The Sunak government had argued that it was unfair that goods traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland must complete checks even if they are staying in Northern Ireland. Von der Leyen said the new framework would see paperwork “drastically reduced” for goods moving from Great Britain only into Northern Ireland, while protecting the E.U.’s single market and the continent’s high standards for goods.
The deal addresses another sticking point. Britain wanted an independent body to settle trade disputes involving Northern Ireland — and to be free of the European Court of Justice. The E.U. wanted the ECJ to continue to do the job. On Monday, Sunak talked about an “emergency brake,” which could be pulled by the assembly in Belfast and potentially involve the ECJ, but only in the case of “significant and lasting effects on everyday lives” of people in the north.
After the news conference, Britain deployed some soft power, as King Charles III welcomed von der Leyen to Windsor Castle for tea. Photographers captured the moment, even as some grumbled that the monarch should steer clear of politics.
After Sunak presented his case for the agreement to the House of Commons on Monday, Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, stood to say, “We will not snipe, we will not seek to play politics. Labour will support and vote for it.”
Hard-line Brexiters in Parliament may find fault in the deal, but — good for Sunak — their initial response was muted.
Leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party, which is allied with Sunak’s Conservative Party, said they wanted to read the language carefully. It is still possible they may refuse to support the deal — leaving government in Northern Ireland paralyzed.
Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of DUP in the British Parliament, told lawmakers that unionists were right to oppose Johnson’s original deal for Northern Ireland, and praised Sunak for a framework that showed “significant progress.”
When the United Kingdom was a member of the E.U., none of this mattered, because everyone could take part in the bloc’s free-flowing trade. But when the U.K. — that would be England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland — left the E.U., Brussels insisted that something had to be done about goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to keep them from entering the Republic of Ireland and thereby Europe through a back door.
The result was an agreement to allow Northern Ireland to remain a part of the E.U.’s single market for goods, while erecting customs checks and other controls for goods coming into the north from Great Britain.
What does this have to do with peace on the island of Ireland? A generation ago, there was a hard, militarized border in Ireland between north and south. It was removed following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which ended 30 years of sectarian strife known as “the Troubles,” between Catholics and Protestants, between Irish republicans and pro-Britain unionists. The violence led to 3,500 deaths; most were civilians.
To keep the peace, all sides agreed it was vital there should be no hard border between north and south, and no return to “checkpoints,” even soft ones, with a camera and a customs inspector.
The Biden administration and some U.S. lawmakers have warned Britain that nothing in its Brexit deal should undermine the success of the Good Friday Agreement, which marks its 25th anniversary in April.
President Biden called Monday’s announcement “an essential step to ensuring that the hard-earned peace and progress of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is preserved and strengthened.”