The Northern Ireland Assembly, a power-sharing executive between Nationalist and Unionist parties in the North, in place since the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, collapsed last year following the Sinn Fein electoral victory.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has refused to resume the power-sharing agreement following last year's historic election in protest of the post-Brexit trading agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol. The introduction of the Windsor Framework in February has the potential to bring Stormont back into session following the stalemate. However, does the Windsor Framework signify the beginning of the end for Brexit, or will it fail yet again to bring about a solution to the seemingly never-ending Northern Ireland debate?
The main proposals of the Framework are centred around customs between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The implementation of this framework would see a significant reduction in customs checks and paper-work that is currently being undertaken under the Northern Ireland Protocol, the trading agreement introduced under Boris Johnson's government. This arrangement was agreed upon between British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the condition that the EU have access to UK-NI trading data. The Stormont Brake is another proposed feature of the framework. It allows for the rejection of any EU laws relating to the protocol in Northern Ireland if the Legislative Assembly can prove they will impact everyday life. This will only be applicable if there is a functioning government in the North, which is not currently in place.
Reactions to the proposed framework have been mostly positive, with expected opposition from the DUP, but there is a sense of hope that has been long missing from post-Brexit discussions of recent years. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said, “The Windsor Framework, while undoubtedly representing significant progress across a number of areas, does not deal with some of the fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties.” The DUP have set up a committee to assess the framework and have stated they “won't be rushed” into agreeing to anything after the damage the protocol has caused. However, a survey conducted in early March of this year showed support among Northern Ireland voters for the framework is three times greater than opposition. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has said the framework is “the most practical way” to deal with Brexit.
The framework debate has come at a time of unease in the North, with MI5 upgrading the terrorist threat level from substantial to severe and reports of heightened republican dissident activity in the lead up to the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. A police vehicle was bombed in Derry on Easter Monday during a 1916 commemoration parade. This follows a series of attacks targeting the PSNI, including the shooting of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell in February. It should be noted that out of the 13 years of MI5 reports on terrorist threat levels in Northern Ireland, 12 of those years the level was severe, so the upgrade this year should not come as a surprise.
As pressure builds for the DUP to reenter Stormont, the question remains of what the perfect solution to the post-Brexit landscape of Northern Ireland would be, with the most likely answer being that there is none. The Windsor Framework is currently the only proposed solution to restore stability in Stormont and reintroduce a functioning government.