Details have been published of the UK government’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to get the party back into power sharing in Northern Ireland.
Joël Reland analyses the details of the command paper, suggesting that while the changes to the trading relationship are fairly minimal there are new commitments which should strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
As the UK government unveiled its ‘Safeguarding the Union’ command paper this week, much of the focus was on how it would materially affect trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The DUP’s core objection to the Windsor Framework was that exports from GB to NI continue to be subject to paperwork and checks (albeit in much more limited form than under the original Protocol). DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s assertion that the new paper addresses those concerns has dominated the headlines.
Upon closer inspection, the paper does little to change the trading relationship – and appears to be largely an exercise in rebranding the Windsor Framework.
Yet this focus on the trade elements conceals some potentially significant new proposals on the implementation of the Framework, which could meaningfully safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
Returning first to trade, the headline change is the replacement of the Windsor Framework’s ‘Green Lane’ – which simplifies paperwork and removes most inspections for consignments moving from GB to NI when ‘not at risk’ of entering the EU – with a new ‘UK internal market system’ (UKIMS).
Beyond the name change, the differences are minimal. The rules for businesses to access the UKIMS are the same as for the Green Lane, and the reduction in paperwork requirements and goods inspections appears marginal at best – and possibly non-existent. Should the changes here be more significant than they first appear, the EU may well have reservations, as the operation of the Green Lane rests of efficient and reliable data-sharing.
One other change is that a wider range of goods (26 varieties of rest-of-world meat and plant products) will now be able to make use of the UKIMS, and some meat goods will now be importable directly into Northern Ireland based on UK, rather than EU, tariff-rate quotas (as was foreseen under the original Framework).
This allows NI to make fuller use of UK trade deals (for example liberalised import rules on New Zealand meat), but the Northern Irish meat industry will not welcome being exposed to more competition from rest-of-world imports.
Though less discussed, the potentially more consequential commitments in the paper are around how the Framework is implemented in practice. These proposals are partly about reassuring the DUP, by reiterating existing commitments in the Framework, but there are also important, new commitments which should strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
On the purely symbolic end, Donaldson has put great stock into the promised amendment to section 7a of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which will be updated to acknowledge the constraints which the Windsor Framework imposes on Northern Ireland’s dynamic alignment with EU law. This is simply a reiteration of something the Framework already does.
Similarly, an Act of Parliament will be brought forward to prohibit the UK from making a ‘future agreement with the European Union which has an adverse effect on the operation of the United Kingdom’s internal market’. Though any government with a decent-sized majority could unpick this, it is novel for a UK government to pay such explicit heed to situation in Northern Ireland. Sometimes symbols do matter.
And, more concretely, the paper offers some clear detail on the operationalisation of the Stormont Brake (which allows the NI Assembly to block the application of updated pieces of EU legislation). Significant questions have been raised about whether the Brake will work effectively in practice, given the need for Stormont to monitor and assess swathes of EU regulatory changes.
The paper outlines that Westminster will give Stormont advance notice of relevant EU proposals, and notify them when the window to trigger the Brake is open. This could, if well implemented, give Assembly members much-needed information for tracking EU-led divergence, though the bar to using the Brake (proving a significant impact on everyday life) remains high.
And, perhaps most significantly, the paper includes concrete obligations for government around UK-led divergence with NI. Legislation will be brought in requiring ministers to assess whether bills have any adverse impacts on the NI’s place in the UK internal market. A new working group with the NI Executive will also be set up to identify and address emerging issues of concern around the operation of the Framework.
At UK in a Changing Europe, we have repeatedly argued that the lack of consideration of how new legislation affects the UK internal market is a lacuna in post-Brexit policymaking, leaving open the possibility of significant divergence between the GB and NI rulebooks. The command paper’s proposals potentially fill this gap.
For instance, it could have obliged Westminster to consider whether reforms to gene editing rules will allow English farmers to undercut Northern Irish ones; and whether a new ban on animal testing licenses would affect flows of cosmetics from GB to NI.
The key uncertainty with the proposal, however, is that ministers appear to have discretion over when such assessments need to be made – meaning the obligation could be all but ignored in practice.
Ultimately, therefore, the onus is now on Westminster to deliver on the commitments in the paper. Repeatedly, UK governments have over-promised on Northern Ireland and dramatically underdelivered (‘no border down the Irish Sea’). Breaking that cycle – through the diligent application of new, well thought-through policy – would build some much-needed trust.
By contrast, should Westminster treat the paper merely as a fop to the DUP, with warm words dissipating as soon as power-sharing is restored, then it is likely to simply entrench the widely-held view in Northern Ireland that the UK government does not care about it.
Until trust is cultivated between the Westminster and all communities and parties in Northern Ireland – not just one – the newly-restored NI Executive will struggle to get itself on even keel.
By Joël Reland, Research Associate, UK in a Changing Europe.