Stormont - photo GFDL-EN/CC
Stormont - photo GFDL-EN/CC

Niall Mulholland, Committee for a Workers’ International

The ‘Windsor Framework’ amending the ‘Northern Ireland protocol’, agreed between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, has been approved by parliament. The protocol caused significant trade problems and the collapse, last year, of the Stormont Assembly after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walked out of the power-sharing institutions.

After making the agreement with the EU, an exuberant Sunak announced that the Windsor Framework “delivers smooth-flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our union and safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.”

On the contrary, the fact that the power-sharing institutions have barely met for half of the last quarter of a century and that several new ‘agreements’ and ‘frameworks’ have had to be cobbled together to keep the Good Friday Agreement alive, only underscores that long-term peace, stability and prosperity have not been delivered to Northern Ireland. The Windsor Framework is yet another sticking plaster that cannot act as a long-term prescription to remedy the sectarian divisions in society.

The majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted ‘remain’ in 2016, but a majority of Protestants voted ‘leave’. All the main parties opposed a ‘hard border’ with the Republic, which remains an EU member state. They feared this would lead to economic dislocation and present a powerful propaganda weapon to republican dissidents as physical customs checks were restored to the border.

But a restored Assembly fell apart last year over the DUP’s opposition to the ‘Northern Ireland protocol’ negotiated with the EU by their erstwhile ally, Boris Johnson, while he was Tory prime minister. This saw an ‘Irish Sea border’, whereby goods from Britain were subject to customs checks at Larne and Belfast harbours on the Antrim coast, making Northern Ireland an ‘exception’ within the UK. This greatly frustrated and angered many Protestants, who felt the protocol undermined their place within the UK.

The protocol also caused significant trading problems and higher costs for businesses. By 2022, checks on goods from the UK at ports in Northern Ireland accounted for 20% of all checks at the EU’s borders.

The new Windsor Framework is an attempt to smooth out problems with the protocol and allay unionist concerns. In light of the Ukraine war, the British government and the EU were also under pressure to overcome divisions.

The Framework makes it easier for goods, including food and medicines, to ship between Britain and Northern Ireland via a ‘green lane’ with minimal checks. Goods destined for the Republic, and thus into the EU’s single market, would be subject to stricter controls in a ‘red lane’.

The Windsor Framework also gives the Northern Ireland Assembly a say over any new EU rules. In “exceptional circumstances” the Assembly can apply the Stormont ‘brake’ if 30 of the 90 legislative members from at least two parties vote to block the adoption of updated EU single market rules, although the final decision will be taken by the government in Westminster.

Most of the main political parties in Northern Ireland have welcomed the Windsor Framework as the basis for a return of the Assembly. Sunak appears to have successfully divided the hard-line Tory pro-Brexit European Research Group on the Framework.

DUP members of Parliament voted against the Framework, with the party’s leader Jefferey Donaldson saying: “While significant progress had been secured in the Windsor Framework across a number of areas it does not deal with some of the fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties.”

Donaldson is caught between DUP hardliners, who say the Windsor deal is not good enough, and DUP moderates who see it as the best one available. DUP MP Ian Paisley Jnr has said the Framework does “not cut the mustard”. Former party leader and First Minister, Peter Robinson, urged the DUP to “consider whether in rejecting the framework… we place unionism and Northern Ireland on more perilous ground”.

The DUP announced on 6 March that it had set up a ‘consultative panel’, made up of former party leaders and legal and business people, to evaluate the revamped post-Brexit trading regime by the end of March.

According to “one well-informed unionist” quoted in the Financial Times (FT): “This is all about edging towards going back [to Stormont] and I don’t see any hard-core sceptics in there.” However, fearing that the more hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) can make electoral gains at the DUP’s expense, Donaldson has stated that his party will not re-enter power-sharing institutions until after the 18 May council elections. And perhaps the DUP will aim to get over the summer ‘marching season’, when sectarian tensions are heightened, before considering returning to the Assembly, with or without formally agreeing to the Windsor Framework.

Irish Sea border

Sunak claims the changes remove “any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”. For many DUP members and the TUV, however, any EU role in Northern Ireland is a violation of sovereignty. EU rules will continue to apply in some areas of the economy and the European Court of Justice remains the final arbiter of EU law. It is possible that a sizable DUP internal opposition can result in the DUP refusing to rejoin the Assembly, for the medium term, at least.

At the same time, pressure continues to mount on the DUP and other parties, as public services in Northern Ireland continue to struggle under the weight of budget cuts. The £1 billion shortfall in funding for public services has resulted in a series of public sector pay strikes.

Public services are also collapsing, as has been witnessed with the engineered closures of emergency surgery at Daisy Hill, South West Acute and Causeway hospitals. The pressure on politicians, and in particular the DUP, will only grow.

In the absence of a functioning government, the potential is there for the Tories to intervene and take responsibility for regional governance directly into their hands. The possibility of ‘direct rule’ also sees the nationalist parties calling for a degree of ‘joint authority’ involving the Dublin government. This would be even more problematic for unionists and would only further destabilise the institutions, and the peace process.

The DUP will also come under strong pressure from the UK, US and regional business interests to agree to the Framework. The US is concerned about long-term stability on the island particularly given the favourable low-tax status in the South, where large US corporations are based.

Speaking at a Coca-Cola factory in Lisburn, Sunak talked up the economic advantages for Northern Ireland: “If we get this framework implemented, we get the executive back up and running, Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position, the unique position in the entire world in having privileged access not just to the UK home market, which is the fifth biggest in the world, but also the European Union single market.”

Yet, to date, Northern Ireland’s “unique position” has not translated into prosperity. Gross domestic product per head is ranked 10th out of the 12 regions of the UK. High levels of deprivation partly explain why public spending per head is about 20% higher in Northern Ireland than in the UK as a whole but expenditure on transport, science and technology – regarded as key drivers of productivity by economists – is the lowest. The North is also significantly poorer, with income per head about 25% below the UK overall.

No amount of fudging the issues will remove the fact that Northern Ireland remains ‘exceptional’ to the rest of the UK  – part of the EU single market, as well as part of the UK – and this will be a running sore with unionists. Added to the mix, demographic changes have taken place, with the last census showing Catholics are now a narrow majority in Northern Ireland.

Border poll

Looking to return to Stormont with the position of First Minister, and aiming to be the largest party in Dublin after the next general election, Sinn Féin campaigns for a ‘border poll’.

But a head count will not end sectarian division or bring the peace and prosperity that many supporters of a united Ireland yearn for. As the endless wrangling over the protocol indicates, the Protestant working class will strongly resist any sense of further diminishing of their British identity and culture and being incorporated as a minority into a capitalist united Ireland.

Low-level paramilitary activities, both republican and loyalist, continue in many deprived areas, as does state repression. The recent shooting of a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, near Omagh town, which was claimed by the New IRA, shows that armed republican groups remain capable of recruiting and mounting operations despite marginal support and frequent crackdowns against them by the state. In opposition to the working class being pulled back into violence and sectarianism, Omagh Trades Council held a rally of several hundred people after the shooting.

Only a united working-class struggle can show a way out of austerity, violence, poverty, injustice, and sectarian divisions. Genuine ‘power-sharing’ from a socialist perspective entails working-class people, Catholic and Protestant, coming together to democratically agree on new arrangements. A socialist society, based on people’s needs, would see the ending of all coercion against either of the communities and overcoming historic fears and distrust: genuine ‘power-sharing’ in a socialist Ireland, linked to a voluntary and equal socialist federation of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales and Europe.

The vehicle to achieve this, a new mass party of the working class with a bold socialist programme to unite workers, has not emerged since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, so far. However, the potential is indicated by important spring shoots, such as the election of Militant Left (CWI Ireland) supporter, Cllr Donal O’Cofaigh, in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, for Cross Community Labour Coalition, in 2019.

The ongoing strike actions by several trade unions in the north over pay are important steps towards building workers’ unity, in practice. And the victory of the Broad Left slate on the general council of NIPSA, the largest union in the north, along with the election, last year, of Militant Left supporter, Carmel Gates, to the union’s post of general secretary, is also a reflection of the growing combative mood of the working class.