Westminster Draws Up Plans To Take Charge Of Windsor Framework In Northern Ireland
Larne Port, Northern Ireland (Alamy)
The government is considering taking unilateral control of implementing the Windsor framework for Northern Ireland, as ministers are concerned that the ongoing power vacuum in Stormont is making it difficult to put parts of the post-Brexit treaty in place.
Northern Ireland has been without a power-sharing government since early 2022. The region's second largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is refusing to serve in its political institutions out of protest against post-Brexit arrangements for trade with Great Britain, which it argues undermine Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.
Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Northern Ireland Office are currently looking at options for how the UK government can ensure its agreement with the European Union is fully put into place in the absence of devolved ministers from whom the region's civil servants would usually receive their instructions, PoliticsHome understands.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak agreed the Windsor framework with the European Union earlier this year as a way of reducing trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain that were created by the original Northern Ireland Protocol, negotiated by ex-PM Boris Johnson.
The new system, which separates goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain into "green" and "red" lanes, is set to be phased in from the beginning of October.
However, the government has faced difficulty in implementing parts of the treaty covering checks at the border, which would usually be dealt with by Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, because there are no ministers in post to instruct Stormont officials to carry out the necessary work, according to Whitehall sources.
Because of this, the government in Westminster is deliberating the best way of taking greater control of the process. One option could be drawing on the 1998 Northern Ireland Act to argue that it must take greater control of implementation to fulfil its international obligations as agreed as part of the Windsor framework. It may be determined, however, that new legislation is required.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson argues that the Windsor deal in its current form does not address all of his party's concerns about Northern Ireland's place in the UK, and has called on the government to provide further guarantees in legislation. The government is expected to publish this legislation early next month, ahead of the DUP's annual conference which gets underway on 13 October. This may be enough to persuade Donaldson to take the DUP back into power-sharing, where he would serve as deputy first minister to Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, though he is likely to face significant opposition from senior figures within his own party.
On Thursday, the Prime Minister's spokesperson said "significant" work was ongoing to get Stormont back up-and-running, and that discussions with the DUP would continue.
One government source stressed that ministers in London always would have fulfilled the UK's international obligations as set out in the Windsor deal, with or without functioning political institutions in Northern Ireland.
PoliticsHome understands there is a view within government that failing to implement the treaty in a timely fashion would also risk undoing some of the work done by Sunak to rebuild trust with the EU after several years of post-Brexit acrimony.
The tone between London and Brussels has improved significantly since the Prime Minister entered office almost a year ago. This more positive atmosphere has helped the two sides reach a new agreement on Northern Ireland and the Horizon science programme, too. A UK-EU deal on law enforcement data-sharing, which PM Sunak hopes will aid his bid to tackle small boat crossings, is also expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Jess Sargeant, Associate Director at the Institute for Government think tank, said she was “not surprised” that the government was looking at taking greater control of the implementation process given the "uncomfortable" position the region's civil servants have been left in.
“The Northern Ireland civil service is in a very difficult position and needs clarity given how politically contentious the issue is,” she told PoliticsHome.
A Government spokesperson said: “We are continuing to take forward work to implement the Windsor Framework, and are engaging the Northern Ireland Parties as part of those efforts.”
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