Could the Stormont Brake derail the Northern Ireland Protocol?

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is set to vote against the UK government’s plan for post-Brexit trade agreements in Northern Ireland.

Its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, announced on Monday that, following a meeting between party officials, the DUP will vote to reject the so-called ‘Stormont Brake’ aspect of the UK-EU agreed Windsor Framework.

An overhaul of the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, the Windsor Framework aims to address some of the concerns raised by the British unionists in Stormont (the Northern Ireland parliament) over trade borders and what it might mean for the future of Northern Ireland within the UK.

“[The Stormont Brake] does not deal with some of the fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties,” Donaldson said on Monday.

The UK’s opposition Labour Party has already said it plans to vote with the government – all but guaranteeing the motion will pass, regardless of the DUP’s disapproval.

But what is the Stormont Brake, what is the DUP hoping to achieve by rejecting it and what will this mean for the future of power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

What is the Windsor Framework, and why was it introduced?

Since the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, Northern Ireland – which shares the UK’s only land border with the EU – has occupied a complex regulatory grey area between UK and EU legislation. The Northern Ireland protocol and subsequent Windsor framework hoped to address it.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by former PM Boris Johnson, came into force in 2021, as an attempt to prevent hard trade borders on the island of Ireland. It moved regulatory and customs checks to the Irish Sea.

But it caused disagreements between London and Brussels and angered Northern Ireland unionists who opposed the idea of an effective border in the Irish Sea. Jeffrey Donaldson referred to the Protocol in 2021 as “the greatest ever threat to the economic integrity of the United Kingdom.”

Under the Protocol, Belfast was still subject to certain EU laws, without Northern Ireland representatives having any say in how they are made or implemented.

On 27 February, Rishi Sunak and the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, presented the Windsor Framework, hailed as the beginning of “a new chapter” in Westminster-Brussels relations.

Von der Leyen said the deal “respects and protects our respective markets and our respective legitimate interests. And most importantly, it protects the very hard-earned peace gains of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement for the people of Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland.”

What is the Stormont Brake mechanism?

With the Windsor Framework’s Stormont Brake mechanism, the Stormont Assembly could formally reject new EU laws for goods.

Westminster says it gives an “unequivocal veto” on new EU rules applying to trade in Northern Ireland, should 30 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly from at least two parties raise objections.

“The Stormont Brake is a mechanism designed to try to give members of the Northern Ireland Assembly some kind of a say on new EU regulations,” explained Dr Jamie Pow, a Lecturer in Political Science at Queen’s University Belfast.

With 25 seats in parliament, the DUP would require the support of just five other politicians to trigger the brake. There are currently 12 more pro-British unionist lawmakers in Stormont.

Implementation of the rule would then be automatically suspended while the UK and Brussels discuss it.

Should the EU contest the triggering of the Brake, the matter will be referred to an independent arbitration panel, rather than the European Court of Justice.

Why is the DUP against the Stormont Brake?

In his statement, Jeffrey Donaldson said “It remains the case that the ‘brake’ is not designed for, and therefore cannot apply, to the EU law which is already in place and for which no consent has been given for its application.

“Whilst representing real progress, the ‘brake’ does not deal with the fundamental issue which is the imposition of EU law by the protocol,” he added.

“From the DUP’s point of view, it seems to be concerned that really it will still be up to the UK Government to decide whether to pursue the brake or not,” Dr Jamie Pow told Euronews.

“So in other words, the Stormont Brake would sound the alarm bells from 30 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but it would still be for the UK Government to decide whether to go through with it,” he added.

New reports into the details of the mechanism reveal that, even if the unionists applied the brake, the UK and Brussels could decide that the law does not merit a UK government veto.

If the UK and EU agreed to proceed with the rollout of the EU law, this would be subject to a formal vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.

But any unionist objections can still be overruled by the UK government, citing “exceptional circumstances” or by claiming the EU law “would not create a new regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

“It’s interesting because in a nutshell, what you could characterise the DUP’s concerns as being are in many ways due to a lack of trust between it and the UK government,” Pow revealed.

“I mean, obviously there’s the bigger UK-EU picture, but really so many of the stumbling blocks have been the DUP’s lack of trust in the UK government and it is things that the UK government could probably do unilaterally that could actually gain some trust.”

Why is DUP support important?

With only eight votes in a 650-seat House of Commons, the DUP won’t be able to prevent the law from being enacted – even though its opposition could encourage hard-line Brexiteer Conservative MPs to vote against the government.

In protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, the DUP has refused to take part in the country’s power-sharing institutions for the last 10 months, arguing that its concerns have still not been addressed.

Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin secured a historic victory in elections in May 2022, becoming the biggest party for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history.  

Sinn Féin’s Vice President, Michelle O’Neill, has said the DUP’s refusal to revive power-sharing at Stormont amounts to “denying people the change they voted for.” She has urged the unionists to accept the Windsor Framework and “get Stormont moving”.

Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party is committed to reviving power-sharing but insists unionist demands must be met.

“At stake here is the future of devolved government in Northern Ireland,” Dr Pow told Euronews. “The DUP so far has boycotted the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, effectively leaving Northern Ireland without a devolved government for over a year now. So to be able to make progress on the protocol is linked to giving the DUP a good enough reason to go back into devolved government and get that back up and running.”

The unionists’ rejection of the Stormont Brake will all but rule out any hope that the Stormont assembly would be revived for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement on 10 April.

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