Thursday 1 February 2024

Saying Nothing much at all, to General Acclaim – The Windsor Framework Relaunch


Colin Murray, Professor of Law, Newcastle Law School

Photo credit: en:User:Dom0803, via Wikimedia Commons

The landing space in which to do a deal on the Windsor Framework and make it stick, second time round, was remarkably small. The hard work of agreeing with the EU an approach to the rules covering trade in goods involving Northern Ireland which would produce as little friction as possible between different parts of the UK whilst simultaneously safeguarding the EU Single Market had been done almost 12 months ago. This, however, had not brought an end to the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP’s) boycott of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

This meant that the UK Government had appease multiple parties as it tried to persuade the DUP that the special post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland are not a threat to its place in the UK. It had to be seen to provide further concessions to the DUP to finally get the deal over the line, while simultaneously not doing anything that could be regarded as threatening to the EU single market access for Northern Ireland goods provided by the reworked Protocol. Looming over this difficult balancing act was the threat of Brexit’s most ardent supporters within Rishi Sunak’s own party, who remained anxious lest the new deal introduce an enhanced degree of alignment between UK law and EU law post Brexit (as unhelpfully splashed in the Telegraph).

It turns out that Sunak’s formula for performing such a complex feat has been to announce as little as possible as loudly as possible (a masterclass in the Yes, Prime Minister, “radical tie for sober announcement” approach to policy). The new Command Paper is more than twice as long as the Windsor Framework Command Paper of February 2023 and proclaims just how much it matters (derivatives of “important” appear more than 50 times in the text, buttressed by nearly 30 uses of forms of “significant”). In appreciation of how well a ship building metaphor plays in Northern Ireland, commitments are “copper fastened” fully five times in the text.  

Announcing the new package in Parliament, the Northern Ireland Secretary declared that the Conservative Party was “the party of the Union”. You could be forgiven for thinking at this point that he had not read the document, for it is repeatedly damning of the Conservatives’ record in office. The Command Paper laments that failing to respond to Unionist concerns during negotiations over Brexit had “undermined economic and political stability in Northern Ireland” (para 16) and lamented that “The decision of the then Government to drop UK Internal Market Act clauses that would have protected NI-GB trade meant that unfettered access was placed in legal jeopardy” (para 27). If only Rishi Sunak could find out who was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of that decision.

Such is the DUP’s fury over the undermining of their position by the Conservatives, however, that the efforts to address these concerns are a necessary part of the package, notwithstanding the deflection of blame onto “the then Government”. What is perhaps more surprising are some of the tonal slips. There are repeated reference to “the sense” or “the perception” of the Union being under threat, so as to give Sunak’s government enough cover to claim to be addressing DUP concerns without ever acknowledging that it accepts them wholesale.

The most practically significant elements of the Command Paper relate to the expansion and rebranding of the “green lane” arrangements by which goods not generally believed to be at risk of onward movement into the EU as they are moved from Great Britain into Northern Ireland are subject to a minimal regime of checks based around specific risks. These risks are identified on the basis of analysis of real-time trade flow data shared with the EU.  It is important to note that these developments were to a large extent foreshadowed in the Windsor Framework, as the operation of data sharing and risk management processes became embedded. We are less than a year on from the acknowledgment that “[t]hese protections are also not static, with specific recognition in the agreement of the need to monitor, and as necessary adapt to, other changes in the future” (Windsor Framework Command Paper, 2023, para 50). That the rebranded internal market lane has been pledged to be operative “as soon as possible” speaks to the need for the EU to accept the adequacy of the processes in meeting the UK’s obligations.

Alongside these changes come an agreement with the EU, and a draft legal text, which when concluded at the next Joint Committee meeting will enable businesses operating in Northern Ireland to have full access to goods imported into the UK under the UK’s post-Brexit trade agreements. Much as hill farmers in Tyrone are unlikely to be jumping for joy at the prospect of direct competition from New Zealand lamb, this development does close off a complaint that Northern Ireland is experiencing post-Brexit trading rules in a way that is distinct from (and for some, disadvantageous to) the arrangements for the rest of the UK.

The DUP’s Gavin Robinson was eager to draw attention to this change:

“We were told that there would be no legal change to the Windsor framework or the EU text, yet—this was part of the process of ensuring trust and commitment—colleagues will have noticed the publication just yesterday of more than 60 pages of legislative changes to text on the European perspective”

It is accurate to state that Joint Committee decisions have legal status equal to Withdrawal Agreement provisions, but this is better regarded as an outworking of the Windsor Framework rather than a change to its core text. The Windsor Framework Command Paper made it clear that this development was a priority for the UK and the EU (see para 15), it is just one that has taken some months come to fruition given the complexity of the subject matter. As the new Command Paper notes, “There is always the potential for issues to emerge, and for challenges to need to be addressed. That capacity for ongoing dialogue, and for further development as may be required, is acknowledged in the Windsor Framework and its accompanying political declaration” (para 35). No one should be jumping up to say that Brexit is finally done.

One key take away, which extends from the Windsor Framework into the new Command Paper, is that the UK Government’s focus has been on trading rules and not goods production. The DUP’s Carla Lockhart put the issue directly to Chris Heaton-Harris in the Commons; “Will the Secretary of State therefore confirm whether Northern Ireland still remains under the EU’s single market laws for the production of food and agrifood?” This drew a terse response from the Secretary of State; “May I recommend that she re-reads the Windsor framework and indeed the Command Paper?” If anyone does reread the documents they will find very little relevant to goods production, and the UK Government might be better advised not to attempt to obscure the reality that their efforts have been focused on securing (dual) market access for Northern Ireland produced goods, not attempting to reset the rules governing goods production established under the Protocol.

In parts of the Paper, the UK Government become quite shrill in their insistence about the limitations to the operation of EU law in Northern Ireland after Brexit; “The important starting point is that the Windsor Framework applies only in respect of the trade in goods - the vast majority of public policy is entirely untouched by it” (para 46). It is impossible not to see this as predominantly for the consumption of its own MPs, because the discussion is couched entirely in terms of the Windsor Framework having no impact on the Rwanda policy.

This is a strange flex in the middle of a document about trade and Northern Ireland, and amounts to an attempt to deny any general significance to the “non-diminution” of rights commitment under Article 2. The problem for these claims is that the non-diminution commitment does encompass elements of EU law like the Trafficking Directive which means that different rights protections are at issue in Northern Ireland by comparison to the rest of the UK. The Command Paper, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes no mention of the fact that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is currently engaged in litigation challenging the Illegal Migration Act 2023 for what it regards as breaches of Article 2.

The new legislative protections for Northern Ireland’s place in the Union is where the document goes full Houdini. In discussing the UK Supreme Court’s Allister judgment, the Command Paper is at pains to assert that the UK Parliament is fully sovereign and has “taken back control” post Brexit (“Importantly, the Supreme Court importantly recognised the UK’s sovereignty, exercised through Parliament”, at para 51, which I guess must mean it is doubly important). But just a few pages after this reminder that nothing is “permanent or irreversible” in this Government’s account of the UK Constitution, come the supposed guarantees of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

The most significant of these come in the form of statutory instruments (the Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024, the Windsor Framework (Internal Market and Unfettered Access) Regulations 2024 and the Windsor Framework (Marking of Retail Goods) Regulations 2024), which, promulgated under the European Union Withdrawal Act, allow for far ranging changes to primary legislation, including the Act itself. This allows these blocks of the deal to be put in place rapidly, and Stormont restored. It also, of course, allows for the whole process to be completed with cursory parliamentary scrutiny.

The Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024 begins with an amendment to section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, asserting that the Windsor Framework operates without prejudice to the “constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom”. This is constitutional surplusage. The whole point of the legislation is to implement an international agreement, and it is therefore to be read in light of that agreement. And Article 1 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, as remixed by the Windsor Framework, affirms that it operates “without prejudice” to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.

This Statutory Instrument then takes an interesting turn. It inserts section 38A into the 2020 Act, which purports to ban any future UK Government from ratifying any new agreement with the European Union “that would create a new regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Two observations can be made of this pledge. The first is that the horse has very much bolted. The Windsor Framework provides a continuing mechanism for new and amended EU law relating to trade in goods to apply to Northern Ireland (subject to the requirements of the Stormont veto, which UK Governments can ultimately override if they disagree with a use of it). There is thus no need for any new Agreement – a process of response to change in EU law is baked into the existing arrangements and this new stricture will not apply to it. Second, anyone who seeks to put much weight on this pledge was not paying attention to the UK Government’s explanation of parliamentary sovereignty just a few pages earlier. This commitment is a gimmick, not unlike the statutory “tax lock” once promised by David Cameron.

The Statutory Instrument then sets out an amendment to section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. This is the closest that the whole process comes to a live wire, because this provision is the connective tissue which allows EU law to have legal effect within the domestic legal order insofar as it gives effect to the Withdrawal Agreement (including the Protocol). Great play has been made of this amendment as the end to the “automatic” application of EU law in Northern Ireland. But that is not what this amendment does. A large body of EU rules applies because of the Withdrawal Agreement, although the amendment of some of these rules, or the addition of new EU measures, is subject under the Windsor Framework to the operation of the Stormont Brake.

This new provision simply makes that reality explicit in the statute. This perhaps has a clarificatory function, but it suffices once again to note that this is a statute implementing an international agreement and the operation of section 7A has been assumed to operate to take account of the working of the Stormont Brake since the Brake was introduced. It is worth noting explicitly that the obligation on the law of Northern Ireland to automatically track developments in the equality directives contained within Annex 1 of the Protocol, as modified by the Windsor Framework, remains in full effect as it is not subject to the Stormont Brake.

The Statutory Instrument then amends the 2018 Act to require a ministerial acknowledgement before the Parliament of whether a Bill affects trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This has been likened to the process under the Human Rights Act by which ministers have to make a statement on the compliance of new legislation with human rights. And there is an irony to this present government lifting and repurposing such a provision. In this instance, however, the assessment does not have to be conducted before every piece of legislation, but only where ministers think there might be an issue. Plenty of scope exists for this element to be overlooked, and it has no legal impact on the operation of a statute in which it is not included. Very soon such ministerial statements will become background noise.

The last piece of legislative reform that I will address in this piece has also been accompanied by noisy speculation; the UK Government has promised to banish from the statute book any duty to have “due regard” to the all-island economy. This is very much in the weeds of Brexit, but when Theresa May was having difficulty securing the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement legislation she was obliged to concede the Patten amendment, which became section 10 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. This was meant to restrict any ministerial attempts to use the wide-ranging powers of delegated legislation under the Act to ignore the UK’s commitments as part of the negotiating process made in the 2017 Joint Report. Ministers had to have “due regard” to maintaining regulatory alignment which supported the “all-island economy” in their use of these powers.

This phrase is a particular bugbear of Unionism, and the Command Paper makes great play of the dangers of “the divisive and misguided political notion of the ‘all-island economy’” (para 71), but it is a stretch to say it is still playing any part in informing government policy. For one thing, new powers to implement the Protocol were created in the 2020 Act, and it is arguable that the strictures imposed on the original powers in the 2018 Act do not apply to them. Second, read in context, the commitment in paragraph 49 of the 2017 Joint Report is about the backstop. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then; it is not relevant to interpreting the UK’s subsequent (distinct) obligations. At best, this is the cleaning up of an outdated provision on the statute book. 

For all that attention devoted to minor or inconsequential issues, a remarkable aspect of the Command Paper is the extent to which it still leaves important issues unresolved. Paragraph 121 of the Paper makes an eye-catching commitment:

“The Government can also confirm that there will be no Border Control Post at Cairnryan. While goods that do not qualify for unfettered access to the UK’s internal market - such as goods moving from Ireland via Northern Ireland - will need to comply with the formalities required of any other third country goods movements, we will develop an approach to checks and formalities on those goods that does not pose any risk to the free and unfettered movement of qualifying Northern Ireland goods.”

The commitment, however, obscures a continuing problem. The UK Government has not finalised its definition of Qualifying Northern Ireland Goods (despite talking about expanding the definition for months).

With the Border Target Operating Model now taking effect in Great Britain there remains no clarity on what the government will do to check whether goods shipments moving from Northern Ireland into Great Britain involve goods which qualify for unfettered access and those which should be checked. There is no easy answer to this issues that does not require some assessment of whether goods movements meet the criteria, but the failure to address the issue in detail in the Paper must generate suspicions that Unionists might find the approach the UK is contemplating unpalatable.

The final thirty pages of the Command Paper consists of “make weight” content, with Annex 1 addressing the history of barriers to trade which have existed since the conclusion of the Acts of Union and the creation of Northern Ireland. This content amounts to a repost to claims that the “Acts of Union are the Union” or that Article VI must somehow be “restored” or “fulfilled”. They speak to the incompleteness of the UK’s removal of barriers to trade which came with incorporating Ireland into the Union, and to the amount of times subsequent legislation has impinged upon trade.

But they also speak to an opportunity lost. These realities have been known, and discussed, for years. Successive UK Governments, however, have cultivated inaccurate impressions of the workings of the extent to which the Union operated to remove barriers to trade for their own purposes. This is not a summary that the Johnson Government, which talked relentlessly of “the provisions of the Acts of Union playing a key role in keeping markets open” (Internal Market White Paper, 2020, para 63) would have produced. Instead it is a belated effort to redress that narrative. It is also a rushed effort, with large sections of it apparently lifted from Professor Henry Patterson’s account of trade between different parts of the UK since the Acts of Union published in the Belfast Newsletter earlier this week. 

No such package would be complete without reheating some existing promises. The Castlereagh Foundation was announced in the New Decade, New Approach deal (para 26) as a means “to support academic research through Universities and other partners to explore identity and the shifting patterns of social identity in Northern Ireland”. The fact that Castlereagh’s biographer, John Bew, is the great survivor amongst special advisers to recent UK Prime Ministers is surely not coincidental to this enduring fixation with a politician best remembered for being maligned by Shelley after Peterloo, for the Castlereagh Foundation is once again promised, indeed guaranteed, in Annex 2. Given the overall tenor of the Paper, perhaps the inclusion of reheated promises was inevitable, but it does flag the extent to which the UK Government’s supposed commitments to Northern Ireland fade in and out depending on the extent to which it is in crisis. What might Shelley say of the whole thing; Very smooth, yet grim.

At this juncture, this account might give the impression that these new developments are so insubstantial as to not warrant Jeffrey Donaldson’s return to power sharing. But that is only the case because all of the heavy lifting was done in the Windsor Framework’s mitigations. Where these changes are at their most substantive, they are a continuation of developments explicitly planned as part of the Windsor Framework. Where they are window dressing, and there is a large amount of window dressing, all of this could have been asserted many months ago.

The sour taste that the whole arrangement leaves is that of a lost year in Northern Ireland’s governance. A year in which politicians in Northern Ireland could have been governing in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and helping to address the cost of living crisis. The conclusion of needs-based funding arrangements did not have to become bound up in the story of the Windsor Framework, but the parties returning to power sharing could not contemplate governing Northern Ireland effectively without something being done to address the unsustainable pressure on its finances.

The UK Government reached a workable compromise with the EU in the Windsor Framework and the new arrangements are in large part no more than outworkings of that deal. Had Sunak been less concerned with looking over his shoulder at the threat posed by his predecessors, so much more could have been done to involve the Northern Ireland parties directly in the Windsor Framework negotiations and to arrive at something that landed first time, without the need to confect this second deal.


  1. The phrase "all Ireland Economy" appears several times in the Good Friday agreement and indeed that agreement set up a cross border agency, Intertrade Ireland to promote it. It also appears in the 2017 Joint Report with the EU on the Brexit negotiations.

    Yet the Command paper has the audacity to declare it a "new political construct" and as being divisive. It therefore removes all statutory requirements for Ministers and relevant agencies to protect it by repealing section 10(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018,, thus undermining the whole basis of the operation of Intertrade Ireland.

    It also appears the Irish Government wasn't informed, never mind consulted on the change, which effectively undermines a key component of the Good Friday Agreement which is an international Treaty signed with Ireland.

    The fact that the discussions took place exclusively with the DUP to the exclusion of the Irish government and all other parties in N. Ireland also undermined the "equality of Esteem" and "rigorous impartiality" requirements of the Good Friday Agreement.

    Having just taken the UK to Court for the Legacy act's beaches of human rights, the Irish government is now faced with the prospect of taking a second case to restore the protection/promotion of the "all Ireland economy" to its rightful place at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and British Irish inter-governmental relations.

    The UK government seems to specialise in making unilateral, retrospective changes to Treaties and Agreements it has signed up to and getting a reputation as a rogue state in the process. Why would anyone be bothered negotiating an agreement with the UK about anything when it just moves the goalposts afterwards?

  2. North Ireland membership is conditional, 1998 Good Friday Agreement states that a border poll for unity into the Republic is legal fact.

    1. Subject to the conditions for an obligation to hold a border poll set out in the GFA being met, and a majority vote for unity in that border poll.

  3. My concern is that most of the population will not understand any of this very technical information. A simpler version should be published. Most people have no understanding of the workings of the EU, the GFA or Irish history. That is why they got away with Brexit.