Keeping the Gates Open: The Windsor Framework and the Irish Border after Brexit
Over a century ago, Ireland was torn by civil war, a partition of six of its northern counties (an area collectively known as Ulster) into the United Kingdom under the name “Northern Ireland” and decades of sectarian violence that brought death, destruction, and bloodshed to both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The divisions were deep and complex — split along political, religious, and nationalist lines.
Neighborhoods in Derry and Belfast were hotbeds of sectarian violence and separated by walls that still stand today. In 1998, a peace was reached but divisions remained heated under the surface, sometimes boiling over in renewed violence. When the United Kingdom narrowly passed the Brexit referendum in 2016, its most contentious issue was what would become of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, threatening to reignite tensions that had simmered for decades. Now, with recent negotiations for a brokered settlement known as the Windsor Framework, there is hope that the peace in Ireland will be long lasting.
Click on the timeline below to see how the current Windsor Framework addresses Irish politics stretching back over a century:
Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol
On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) passed a referendum to leave the European Union (EU) and to work independently on international trade and other policies. While there were many political and economic implications for both the UK and Europe, because of the sectarian and political implications of a divided Ireland, all parties agreed that hardening the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland should be avoided at all costs.
Because of the overall complexity of the deal, and wanting to avoid controls on the only external land border between Europe (the Republic of Ireland) and the UK (Northern Ireland) it was agreed to largely maintain the way things were between Europe and the UK until December 31, 2020 to allow both parties to finalize the new trade deal. When Brexit finally took effect on January 1, 2020, new rules applied to both European and UK citizens. UK visitors to Europe had to have a UK passport and could only stay up to 90 days without a visa (this did not apply to UK visits to the Republic of Ireland) and rules around work permits, tariffs, and duty taxes also changed.
But the problem of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remained. Europe’s strict food rules require border checks on goods such as dairy products and because of the sectarian history tied to the Irish border, officials were reluctant to include cameras, checkpoints, or other buffers that could reopen old wounds. In order to avoid any semblance of a hard border, the EU and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol. This meant that border checks for products coming from Scotland, Wales, and England would have to be conducted in Northern Irish ports, regardless if the goods were bound for Ireland (still part of the EU) or if Northern Ireland was the final destination.
The Northern Ireland Protocol created two distinct problems, one political, and one economic.
In order to understand the political problem raised by the Northern Ireland Protocol, it’s important to understand an earlier accord: The Belfast Agreement (also known as the The Good Friday Agreement for the date of its signing, on Friday, April 10, 1998). The Belfast Agreement was a peace treaty designed to end three decades of sectarian violence between armed paramilitary groups, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that supported a united Republic of Ireland independent of the UK, and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) made up of loyalists that wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the UK. Both sides conducted bombing campaigns and other acts of violence in cities such as Belfast and Derry killing over 3,500 people during a time known as The Troubles.
During The Troubles, those traversing the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland were subjected to military checkpoints staffed by the British military and surveillance towers and outposts were placed throughout the region. The Belfast Agreement sought to disarm the sectarian groups on both sides of the conflict, and asserted a birthright for all those born in Northern Ireland to decide to be citizens of Ireland, the UK, or both. It also created the Northern Ireland Assembly (often referred to as “Stormont,” for its location on the Stormont Estate outside Belfast) a devolved parliament that appoints a Northern Ireland Executive and decides matters not explicitly reserved to the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
While it is easy to see why the Northern Ireland Protocol was created to avoid even the appearance of border checkpoints at the Irish/UK border, the protocol itself came under fire from unionists in Northern Ireland who interpreted the protocol as creating a border between the UK and Northern Ireland itself.
And while the Belfast Agreement went a long way toward diffusing the violence of The Troubles, sectarian violence still makes headlines in Northern Ireland today, including the recent targeted assassination of a detective in the Police Services of Northern Ireland (PSNI) allegedly by members of the New IRA. Because the Northern Ireland Protocol wasn’t ideal, the UK and Europe returned to the table once again to try and create a more workable solution.
The Windsor Framework
In February 2023, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen met in secret at the Fairmont Hotel in Windsor Great Park outside of London to negotiate a deal on the Northern Ireland trade issues that has come to be known as “The Windsor Framework.”
In the framework, the border controls on goods are what Andrew McCormick, former Director General of International Relations in the Northern Ireland Executive Office calls “risk-based and proportionate.” According to the New York Times, goods will now pass through either a “green” channel with few restrictions for goods that will be staying in Northern Ireland, and a more stringent “red” channel for goods destined for Ireland. The deal also contains what is known as the Stormont Brake which deals with sovereignty of Northern Ireland as it relates to the relationship with the EU on trade. Rather than be subject to decisions made at the Parliament level, the Stormont Brake allows members of Northern Ireland’s regional assembly to “stop the application of new EU laws on goods in Northern Ireland” according to Padraic Halpin of Reuters. This gives the UK veto power on EU goods laws affecting Northern Ireland if 30 or more members of the Northern Irish parliament object to a specific rule.
So far, the international response has been cautiously optimistic. U.S. President Joe Biden is in support so far as it reinforces the Belfast Agreement that his predecessor Bill Clinton was key in negotiating. Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was positive on the open border and free trade policies, and even the two major parties in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party and the republican Sinn Féin announced some level of support for the deal.
The framework essentially establishes a preferred trade status for Northern Ireland for the time being — it has effectual open trade with both the European Union and the UK, something that Scotland, Wales, and England don’t yet have. Because the Irish border issue was the most contentious of the Brexit referendum, it takes economic and political pressure off of both the UK and the EU. The island of Ireland is stronger from the agreement as well. While much of England voted for Brexit, much of Northern Ireland voted in favor of remaining in the European Union with their Republic of Ireland neighbors (see map — areas in yellow voted to remain in the EU, areas in blue voted to exit the EU). The settling of the Windsor Framework may lead to increased unity with their neighbors across the “soft border.”