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Clare Rice reflects on the political implications of the Windsor Framework in Northern Ireland, and whether the agreement will be sufficient to restore power-sharing.

The long awaited UK-EU agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol – the Windsor Framework – was finally unveiled on 27 February.

But for people in Northern Ireland, this was only a first step towards the restoration of power-sharing. Over a year after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed the Executive in protest at the Protocol, the importance of this agreement extends far beyond technical details.

Without the backing – expressly or tacitly – of, in particular, the DUP, Northern Ireland could find itself staring into a political abyss given the party’s position that it will not countenance a return to power-sharing without a deal that meets its Seven Tests.

If the details were to be thoroughly considered, a decision on whether the DUP, or any of Northern Ireland’s parties, would back the Windsor Framework was unlikely to happen overnight.

Some have provided initial assessments: Sinn Féin, the SDLP, and Alliance have all broadly welcomed it, albeit with concerns about elements of its practical operation. At the time of writing, the UUP has not disclosed a position. The DUP’s initial assessment, published on 14 March, stated that parts of the deal ‘require further clarification, re-working and change.’

This close political scrutiny of the Framework has been taking place against a backdrop of carefully choreographed efforts to sell the positives of the new arrangements. The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, visited Northern Ireland the day after announcing the new deal, extoling the virtues of dual market access for Northern Ireland. The UK government has also been holding meetings with Northern Ireland’s political parties.

A new addition to the Brexit lexicon – the Stormont Brake – has been heralded by the Prime Minister as a significant achievement, and is a clear attempt to encourage unionist support for the deal. Its purpose is to address longstanding concerns about a democratic deficit regarding the specific set of EU laws that would continue to apply in Northern Ireland to facilitate the Protocol arrangements.

A complex initial plan for the Brake is set out within the Framework. It details a mechanism that would not be easy to trigger (unlike the Assembly’s veto mechanism, the Petition of Concern, to which it has been operationally aligned). However, remaining ambiguity about its operation and outworking means that the Brake has been met with scepticism and concern across the political spectrum.

The UK government has also suggested that legislation could be used as a means of reaffirming Northern Ireland’s place within the UK – an additional sweetener to encourage DUP support for the Framework. However, this has been met with widespread angst given that it would involve tinkering with the delicate legislative provisions already in place stemming from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the DUP’s Seven Tests have not been met in their entirety. On a narrow reading, the Framework falls short, not least, for example, in that some EU law will continue to apply in Northern Ireland, and the final arbiter of this will remain the European Court of Justice.

However, on a broader reading, there is scope for the party to be able to sell the deal as a success – for example, while not straightforward, the amount of EU law that is applicable is much-reduced.

The intricate realities of Brexit cannot be disentangled from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA) – treading a course between the two requires a much more agile and pragmatic approach than is permitted by a narrow reading of the DUP’s tests.

It is to be welcomed that the party leadership opted against a knee-jerk reaction. Some members were quick to publicly react. Most notably, Ian Paisley MP, in his capacity as Parliamentary Chairman of the Centre for the Union, backed a report denouncing the agreement for not having gone far enough. The DUP has distanced itself from the views expressed.

On 6 March, the party announced that it would be establishing an eight-member panel to ‘engage with a broad section of the unionist and loyalist community, the business sector, civic society and others who want to see Northern Ireland prosper within the Union’ with a view to reporting its findings by the end of the month.

The panel comprises legal, political and business experience, and includes two former Party Leaders. It will do three things: it will cast a wide net to ensure that the DUP’s decision will be informed by perspectives beyond those of elected members; it will buy the party more time; and it will provide a degree of political cover for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson should the decision ultimately be one of accepting the deal.

The potential ramifications of the DUP’s next steps are not only significant for the party itself, but also for the future of political unionism. If the party backs the deal, it could fear being branded as weak in light of the broad reading of its Seven Tests that this would require.

If such a decision does emerge in the coming weeks, the first impact of this for the DUP would likely be felt in the local elections this May, where the party could be in line to lose seats to the TUV in particular, which takes a hard line view on the Protocol and has been clear that the Windsor Framework is inadequate.

A further consideration is how unionists would perceive the party for entering power-sharing with a Sinn Féin First Minister, in light of speculation that this has been a contributing factor to the DUP’s current stance.

However, a return to the Assembly could potentially bring longer-term political reward if the party can effectively project itself as having forced the hand of the EU to reach a new set of arrangements, thus showing itself as a strong force within and for unionism.

If the DUP chooses to reject the deal, it is not clear what will follow. Having indicated that it intends to make its position clear before the end of March, this could leave a very tight turnaround time for a restoration of power-sharing in time for the 25th anniversary of the GFA in April.

The DUP has been clear that this does not feature on its radar as a motivation. However, the optics of a collapsed Assembly amid reflections on how far Northern Ireland has come since 1998 would be far from positive.

Power-sharing in Northern Ireland is now reliant on the DUP’s next move. Will the party choose to be on the outside looking in, or will it opt to have the maximum influence it can over a revised Protocol going forward?

We will soon find out.

By Dr Clare Rice, Research Associate, University of Liverpool.

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