The “premier” Rishi Sunak today got the House of Commons to pass by a large majority -515 votes in favor compared to 29 against- the so-called Stormont Agreement, the new pact that it has closed with the EU to put an end to the controversy that existed regarding the new customs controls that must be carried out in Northern Ireland after Brexit.
Specifically, the only thing that was put to a vote was the so-called `Stormont Brake´, the tool that will allow the Belfast Assembly to object to future community legislation that must continue to be applied in the British province in order to protect the single market. But that is enough for the new framework to be formally adopted at the meeting scheduled for this Friday in London between James Cleverleythe Foreign Minister, and Maros SefcovicVice President of the European Commission.
It was at the end of February, after months of negotiations, when Sunak and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyenannounced the long-awaited white smoke, thus marking the beginning of a “new chapter” in bilateral relations, far from the threats that were once poured Boris Johnson and that they were about to start a trade war.
During the long saga of Brexit, the current tenant of Downing Street has always had problems getting Westminster to give the green light to what was agreed with Brussels. However, on this occasion, the feared great rebellion of the hard-core Eurosceptics ‘Tories’ did not materialise. Of the hundred of those who finally spoke, only a total of 22 Conservatives voted against, among them, Boris Johnson himself and his fleeting successor Liz Truss.
The rebels joined the Northern Irish unionists of the DUP, who had already advanced their rejection. Protestants do not accept that the British province now has a different status from the rest of the United Kingdom, which is why they continue to refuse to form a coalition government in Belfast, where the Assembly has been paralyzed for more than a year. It seems difficult for the situation to change before April 10, when the the 25th anniversary of the peace agreement between Catholics and Protestants. Therefore, if the new formula now designed by London and Brussels continues to fail to unblock the political crisis in Northern Ireland, it could be considered a failure.
The truth is that Brexit always posed a real challenge for the border between the Republic of Ireland (a member of the EU) and the British province of Northern Ireland, the only land border that now exists between the United Kingdom and the EU, apart from the of Gibraltar. Beyond the logistical problems of protecting the single market, there were delicate historical questions, since the Good Friday agreement – which ended the bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants – makes it clear that there can be no “hard border” on the island.
At the time, Johnson decided to ‘move’ the border to the Irish Sea, but that forced controls on products arriving from Great Britain. In order to find a solution, Sunak has now opted for pragmatism, despite his eurosceptic conviction, and Brussels has shown great flexibility. And thanks to the rapprochement between both parties, it has been possible to reduce checks considerably thanks to the creation of two channels. A green one, with minimal or no checks, for products traveling from Great Britain (Scotland, England and Wales) to Northern Ireland. And a red one for products whose final destination is the Republic of Ireland (member of the EU), to which customs, sanitary or phytosanitary controls must be applied. Sunak has also achieved that everything related to VAT or state subsidies to companies in Northern Ireland remains under the control of London, and not Brussels.
In any case, the British province continues to have a different status from the rest of the United Kingdom, more aligned with community regulations. And this is of great concern to Northern Irish unionists in the DUP, who fear that this will pave the way for a reunification referendum on the island, historic request of the Catholics of Sinn Fein who, last year, were for the first time as the formation with the most votes in the ‘regional’ elections.