Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced at the end of February that the government has a provisional agreement (the Windsor Framework) with the EU to resolve difficulties with the Northern Ireland Protocol. He claims this will “take back control” of Northern Ireland. It won’t.
The EU sees this differently – maintaining the essential elements of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, of which the protocol was part. However politicians frame this deal, it is bad for Britain and bad for the whole of Ireland.
Sunak says the Windsor Framework is a change and is recognition of Brexit by the EU. That’s either a deliberate misrepresentation or he hasn’t learnt the lessons from his predecessors’ dealings with the EU – that it gives nothing on Brexit without being absolutely compelled to do so.
And worse, Sunak says “that's it, no more changes” – challenging the Democratic Unionist Party to comply (and that party’s refusal to take part in the Northern Ireland Assembly is adding to the mess). Keir Starmer, who also wants to “take control”, will back the deal. No surprise there, given his declared willingness to trade sovereignty for an agreement with the EU.
The EU analysis is that the solution to the problems in Northern Ireland – most of which are of its making – are to be found in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. It says: “The envisaged amendment does not amount to a change of the essential elements of the Withdrawal Agreement.” The UK government document manages to avoid mentioning this.
Under the Framework the EU can continue to impose binding regulations on the people of Northern Ireland – adding to around 670 new laws made since Brexit. These laws are made behind closed doors by majority vote of the European Council of Ministers.
The European Union’s chief negotiator Maros Sefcovic is reported as telling the European Parliament’s Brexit committee that the deal would not hand back full sovereignty over the region. He said, according to reports, that it was designed only to avoid negative headlines.
“The role of the ECJ as the sole and final arbiter of EU law stays in place.”
He went on to say, “Be under no impression that there will be a diminishing of the role of the European Court of Justice…We’ve been very clear from the beginning until the end, the role of the ECJ as the sole and final arbiter of EU law stays in place.”
There’s little or no parliamentary opposition, or even questioning, of the latest deal. David Frost, now in the House of Lords, who led on Brexit negotiations, calls it a good deal. Others who flagged the difficulties with the Northern Ireland Protocol from the outset accept the line that it’s a recognition of Brexit by the EU and now we should be friends. The Labour Party, whose opposition to Brexit strengthened the EU hand in negotiations, still hankers after the EU.
What none of these accept is that the people of the whole of Ireland must decide their future – not Britain and certainly not the EU or the US. But the Union that joins the north of Ireland to the UK can’t just be swept away by outside bodies. A forced separation of the north from the rest of the UK is not the answer either – and of course Ireland would not be independent while still in the EU.
The whole of Ireland accepted the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, in two referendums. In effect it granted Northern Ireland a special status in relation to the rest of the UK and to the Irish Republic.
But it was not a good thing that the Northern Ireland Protocol treated the north of Ireland differently from the rest of the UK and that it remained partially under the control of the EU and the European Court of Justice. And the Windsor Framework does not change that.
The risk for Britain is that the EU will continue to use Northern Ireland as a trojan horse to bind us back into its orbit. Mind you, all the parliamentary parties seem to want to get back into the EU bed one way or another.
The continuing interference of the EU and its court in a sovereign, non-member country should be opposed – even if it is in respect of a part of the country with a special status and which we see ultimately belonging elsewhere.
‘Workers must repeat the message that sovereignty is non-negotiable.’
And workers in Britain must repeat to the ruling class the message of the 2016 Leave vote – that sovereignty is non-negotiable, not to be given away – whether over Northern Ireland, or “Global Britain” schemes and trade deals.
The risks from the Irish perspective are different – most obviously the Good Friday Agreement falling apart as its stress on seeking cross-party agreement runs counter to the “Stormont brake” as set out in the new deal.
With the continuing EU and European Court of Justice influence on the north of Ireland the chances of peaceful unification are likely to recede, not advance.
The EU cares nothing for the people of Ireland and is willing to risk peace there in the pursuit of its political aims. The sole reason for the EU’s action and push for the protocol was to frustrate Brexit. The EU saw it as a weak point to attack Britain – aided by our political class and the Irish government, it has to be said.
What is lacking in this development so far is the perspective of the British working class. It’s in our hands to constrain the actions of parliamentary politicians, if we choose to do so. We have to ignore or reject those who want to use this development to re-run Brexit or to further fragment Britain. And if we fail to do so now, it will be harder in future.
There are other fights for British workers. There are so many challenges and questions about the future of Britain, and who governs it, that need our attention. But all of our struggles are joined in one political thread from pay disputes to the struggle for sovereignty and independence. And that means rejection of the role of the EU in Northern Ireland.