What is in the Windsor Framework? MPs approve Rishi Sunak’s deal

Downing Street says it is not planning to significantly alter the Windsor Framework despite the DUP in Westminster saying it won’t vote for it  (PA Wire)
Downing Street says it is not planning to significantly alter the Windsor Framework despite the DUP in Westminster saying it won’t vote for it (PA Wire)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has received support for the Northern IrelandBrexit plan he created with the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, which has passed the vote in the Commons.

MPs voted the plans through on Wednesday, March 22, but it was not plain sailing, with 22 Tories rebelling against the Windsor Framework.

Among the Conservative rebels were former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. They also included another former party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, and the former Cabinet ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel and Simon Clarke.

The vote was passed by 515 votes to 29. A breakdown of the votes showed that six Democratic Unionist party (DUP) MPs opposed the plan, along with the 22 Tories, plus former Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, who has lost the whip.

The DUP had said before the count that it would vote against the plans. Its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, said he would continue to work with the Government on “outstanding issues”.

But what is in the deal and why it is so significant?

Why was the Northern Ireland Protocol a source of tension?

The protocol formed a key part of Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal. It was signed by the then prime minister in 2020 and was designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

To keep the border free-flowing, London and Brussels essentially moved new regulatory and customs checks required by Brexit to the Irish Sea.

The move introduced red tape on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This created a headache for many businesses and enraged loyalists and unionists, who claim the region’s place within the UK has been undermined.

The row over the new arrangements has left Northern Ireland without a functioning devolved government. This is because the DUP used its veto to bring down the administration in protest at the protocol. Its boycott means a ministerial executive cannot function and the legislative assembly cannot conduct any business.

What is in the new deal on trade?

The Windsor Framework, as the set of proposed arrangements is called, was announced by Mr Sunak and Ms Von der Leyen, last month. The prime minister claimed that the agreement “removes any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”.

The deal, which took months of negotiations, covers a range of areas. These include trade, VAT regulation and the role of Stormont in EU laws that apply to Northern Ireland.

At the core is the creation of a new system for the flow of goods. Anything destined for Northern Ireland will travel there as part of a “green lane”, with significantly fewer checks. Anything that could cross the border and enter the EU’s single market will travel through a separate “red lane”.

The Government said the green lane would be accessible to the broadest range of traders across the UK, including small businesses wanting to bring goods into Northern Ireland.

The changes should also benefit food retailers, addressing many of the vocal concerns about the difficulties of moving British sausages and other foodstuffs into Northern Ireland as part of protocol rules on agri-food.

“If food is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, then it will be available on supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland,” Mr Sunak said at a recent press conference.

Supermarkets, wholesalers and hospitality companies would all able to use the new green lane. The requirement for health certificates for individual food products would be removed and “radically reduced checks” on foodstuffs are promised.

Customs processes for parcels would be scrapped. This would mean that parcels can be sent between people in Great Britain and Northern Ireland without any additional requirements.

Travellers with pets have also been assured that, under the agreement, they would be able to travel throughout the UK without the requirement of extra health treatments, new costs or extra documents.

The issue is a concern for many, with the protocol creating a range of new rules for cats and dogs moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. These include the requirement of an animal health certificate and a rabies vaccination.

If food is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, then it will be available on supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland

Rishi Sunak

As part of the deal, the legal text of the protocol has been amended on VAT. Under current arrangements, EU VAT and excise rules for goods generally apply in Northern Ireland.

Mr Sunak has said that under his deal this will change, and the legal text of the protocol would be amended to allow the UK Government to “make critical VAT and excise changes for the whole of the UK”.

Alcohol duty, for instance, was mentioned — with Mr Sunak suggesting that the cost of a pint in the pub could be cut for Northern Irish drinkers.

The Windsor Framework also lifts the ban on seed potatoes moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

What is the role of the European Court of Justice under the agreement?

It had been expected that both the UK and the EU would try to find a way around the difficult role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Concerns about the oversight role of the court have been raised by the DUP and some Tory backbenchers, with the issue less about trade and more about sovereignty.

The ECJ is the final arbitrator of EU law issues in the region, given that Northern Ireland essentially remains within the single market for goods.

The Government believes that the agreement significantly narrows the role of the ECJ. A new approach is set to address some of the concerns of a democratic deficit for Northern Irish representatives in the application of EU law.

That arrangement, dubbed the Stormont brake, is described in the agreement as giving Stormont a “genuine and powerful role” in deciding whether significant new rules on goods that affect life in the region would apply. It is set to function along the same lines as the Good Friday Agreement safeguard of the petition of concern.

Under that Stormont arrangement, 30 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) signatures are needed to secure a valid petition. These then trigger a vote that requires a majority of both nationalist and unionist MLAs to pass.

It remains to be seen how the arrangement will be introduced into the Stormont institutions, if power-sharing does return. However, Downing Street has been clear that once triggered, the brake will give the Government the power subject to qualifying criteria to veto any new or amended EU rule.

Ms Von der Leyen said in February the ECJ was the “sole and ultimate arbiter of EU law” and will have the “final say” on single market decisions.

She described the Stormont brake as something that would be an emergency mechanism that would hopefully not be needed.

What does the EU think of the new deal?

Ms Von der Leyen spoke highly of the efforts to reach a deal, calling it “historic” and one that opened a “new chapter” in UK-EU relations.

In Dublin, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the EU had moved “a lot” to facilitate a deal.

“It’s a uniquely positive arrangement for Northern Ireland businesses in particular that trade can flow freely back and forth from Britain to Northern Ireland, without any need for any checks or complications, provided those goods stay in Northern Ireland,” he said.

When would the changes take effect?

The prime minister said that the new agreement would make a difference “almost immediately”. However, it does seem that at least some of the changes would come into effect at various times. For instance, new arrangements for post and parcels would take effect from September 2024 — while some of the exact details of the implementation of the Stormont brake are still to be worked out.

But Downing Street has been clear that significant parts of the deal can be introduced even without Stormont returning immediately.

What happens to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill?

Mr Johnson’s legislation to override post-Brexit rules on Northern Ireland has been jettisoned by the prime minister. Brussels has agreed in turn that it will scrap its legal action against the UK. This was aunched in retaliation over the former prime minister’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

Downing Street believes that the new agreement means there is no longer legal justification for the bill. This currently in the Lords and was still being championed by Mr Johnson only last week.

Who voted against the Windsor Framework?

Out of the 515 MPs that used their vote, 29 politicians were against the Windsor Framework.

These included 22 Conservative MPs, who were:

  • Boris Johnson,

  • Liz Truss,

  • Jacob Rees-Mogg,

  • Priti Patel,

  • Iain Duncan Smith,

  • Adam Afriyie,

  • Jake Berry,

  • Peter Bone,

  • William Cash,

  • Christopher Chope,

  • Simon Clarke,

  • Richard Drax,

  • James Duddridge,

  • Mark Francois,

  • Jonathan Gullis,

  • Adam Holloway,

  • Andrea Jenkyns,

  • David Jones,

  • Danny Kruger,

  • Craig Mackinlay,

  • Matthew Offord,

  • John Redwood

Six Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) members were also against the bill. These were:

  • Gregory Campbell,

  • Jeffrey Donaldson,

  • Carla Lockhart,

  • Gavin Robinson,

  • Jim Shannon,

  • Sammy Wilson

Lastly, Andrew Bridgen, an independent MP, was among those who voted against the proposal.