UK, EU reach deal for N. Ireland, eyeing new chapter in ties

The United Kingdom and the European Union on Monday concluded a new post-Brexit trade arrangement for Northern Ireland after long negotiations.
UK, EU reach deal for N. Ireland, eyeing new chapter in ties

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen shake hands during a joint press conference following their meeting at the Fairmont Hotel in Windsor, west of London, on February 27, 2023.

The United Kingdom and the European Union on Monday concluded a new post-Brexit trade arrangement for Northern Ireland after long negotiations, with both sides eyeing a new chapter in relations.

Dubbed the "Windsor Framework," the deal aims to ease the trading issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol and was announced by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Windsor near London.

'Decisive breakthrough'

"I'm pleased to report that we have now made a decisive breakthrough," Sunak said at a joint press conference with von der Leyen. "Together, we have changed the original Protocol and are today announcing the new Windsor Framework."

He said the agreement delivers the smooth flow of trade within the UK, as goods destined for Northern Ireland will travel through a new Green Lane, with a separate Red Lane for goods at risk of moving on to the EU.

In the Green Lane, burdensome customs bureaucracy will be scrapped, meaning food retailers like supermarkets, restaurants and wholesalers will no longer need hundreds of certificates for every lorry, Sunak told reporters.

"This means we have removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea," he noted.

The two sides have amended the legal text of the Protocol to ensure the country can make critical value-added tax and excise changes for the whole of the UK, "for example on alcohol duty, meaning our reforms to cut the cost of a pint in the pub will now apply in Northern Ireland."

With a settlement on medicines, moreover, drugs approved for use by the UK's medicine regulator will be automatically available in every pharmacy and hospital in Northern Ireland.

A new so-called "Stormont Brake" was also introduced. It will allow the elected Northern Ireland Assembly to stop EU goods laws that would have "significant and lasting effects on everyday lives." When pulled, "the UK government will have a veto," the prime minister said.

"This gives Northern Ireland a powerful safeguard," he said.

Many had called for Stormont, or the Northern Ireland Assembly, to have a say over these laws, he noted. "But the Stormont Brake goes further and means that Stormont can in fact stop them from applying in Northern Ireland."

Following the announcement on Monday, Irish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defense Micheal Martin said the UK-EU announcement is "very welcome."

The new agreement is "the result of genuine engagement, and of the EU and UK working together and listening to the concerns raised by elected representatives, citizens and business in Northern Ireland," Martin said in a statement.

Professor Iain Begg from the London School of Economics and Political Science told Xinhua that Sunak has succeeded where his predecessors have failed, and the reason is that he is now looking for a constructive relationship with the EU.

Sunak is "correct to see it not just as a turning point, but a breakthrough, because it opens the door to resolving some of the other outstanding issues in relation to UK-EU relations," Begg added.

Belfast agreement

Sunak called the Windsor Framework a "turning point" for the people of Northern Ireland, saying it fixes the practical problems they face and preserves the balance of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

Noting that this year will mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, von der Leyen said the new Windsor Framework is here to benefit people in Northern Ireland and support all communities celebrating peace on the island of Ireland.

"We were both genuinely committed to finding a practical solution for people and for all communities in Northern Ireland," the EU chief said. "This new Framework will allow us to begin a new chapter."

Signed in 1998 following three decades of conflict, the landmark Belfast Agreement established a power-sharing system of government, including an Executive and Assembly. It underpins Northern Ireland's peace, constitutional settlement and institutions.

A lengthy dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol has recently posed a serious threat. Under the protocol, Northern Ireland was part of the British customs territory but subject to the EU's customs code, value-added tax rules and single market rules for goods.

However, a de facto Irish Sea border was thus created between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, meaning goods transported to and from Northern Ireland were subject to border controls.

Northern Ireland's pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has demanded the removal or replacement of the protocol as a precondition for it to sit in the assembly and form a devolved government.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the result on Monday. "In broad terms it is clear that significant progress has been secured across a number of areas whilst also recognising there remain key issues of concern," he said in a statement.

The DUP will study and examine the details of any and all underpinning legal texts, he added. "Where necessary we stand ready to engage with the government in order to seek further clarification, re-working or change as required."

Professor John Tonge from the University of Liverpool told Xinhua that the new deal is a "major triumph" for Sunak. "The British government has got most of what it wanted from the European Union," Tonge said. "Even the DUP may be happy."

Dublin welcomes new deal

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar welcomed the move in a tweet, saying it is "the result of a long and difficult process to find joint solutions."

Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Fein, the largest opposition party in Ireland, said that her party "will meet tonight to assess the deal".

"Protection of the GFA (Good Friday Agreement), no hardening of the border and access to the EU market are key elements of any deal," she tweeted, adding that "there is a real urgency to get the Northern Executive up and running."

Ibec, Ireland's largest business representative group, said the move would be welcomed by "businesses across the all-island economy."

"As economic challenges continue to impact business sentiment, today's announcement will bring much needed certainty for businesses across the all-island economy," it said in a statement.

Irish Farmers Association President Tim Cullinan said that "while we await the full details of any new arrangements, it is much better to have a negotiated outcome rather than having to resort to unilateral measures."

"Approximately one third of our food exports still go to the UK, so having rules-based trade that preserves the integrity of the Single Market is extremely important for Irish farming," he said in a statement.

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