The Windsor Framework: Rishi Sunak and EU strike post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol deal

A 'decisive breakthrough' on Northern Ireland's future has been made after seven years of arguments, but some unionists are reserving judgement as they pore over the details

Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have agreed a deal to change one of Brexit's biggest sticking points: the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The prime minister said the pair had made a “decisive breakthrough” to change the protocol, describing the new treaty as the "Windsor Framework", referencing where it was agreed.

He said it “delivers smooth-flowing trade within the whole of the United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our union and safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland”.

Ms von der Leyen called the deal “historic” and insisted it would allow the UK and EU to "begin a new chapter" - a phrase which appeared to reference how low relations between the two trading partners had fallen since Brexit.

She said the EU is fully committed to safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, which is why the DUP's approval is so important.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol is and what will change?

The Good Friday Agreement, a treaty which agreed peace in Northern Ireland following the Troubles, says there must always be a powersharing government involving a coalition of the biggest republican and unionist parties.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party would support the deal and committed not to “play political games”.

In response to the new protocol, Sir Keir told the Commons: “The protocol will never be perfect – it’s a compromise.

“But I’ve always been clear that if implemented correctly it is an agreement that can work in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

“And now that it has been agreed we all have an obligation to make it work.”

Watch Rishi Sunak set out the Windsor Framework in the Commons:

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the UK-EU deal provided “workable and durable” solutions to issues raised by the Northern Ireland Protocol. He said he hoped the Windsor Framework would lead to the restoration of the Stormont institutions.

Updating MPs on Monday evening, Mr Sunak outlined details on the so-called Stormont brake, insisting it will ultimately allow the UK government to have a “veto” on new EU goods rules.

The prime minister said he was “sympathetic” to the view that EU laws should have no role in Northern Ireland, adding: “But for as long as the people of Northern Ireland continue to support their businesses having privileged access to the EU market and if we want to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland – as we all do – then there will be some role for EU law.”

Speaking in the Commons, the Prime Minister said if the Northern Ireland Protocol was implemented in full, “we would see supermarket lorries needing hundreds of certificates for every individual item, every single document checked, supermarket staples like sausages banned altogether”.

He went on: “More delays, more cost, less choice. So today’s agreement fixes all this with a new, permanent legally binding approach to food.”

He confirmed the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill would be dropped following the new agreement, explaining that the legal justification for it had lapsed.

What challenges could Rishi Sunak face?

Mr Sunak said Parliament will get a vote on the deal "at the appropriate time" and the result will be respected, adding: “I think it’s important we give everyone the time and the space they need to consider the detail of the framework.”

That presents the next big problem for Mr Sunak; whether or not his deal will be approved by MPs - and it is not yet clear whether unionists in Northern Ireland will back it.

If the Democratic Unionist Party rejects the deal it will struggle to pass the Commons without Labour votes, because Eurosceptic Tories part of the European Research Group have said they will side with the DUP.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his party would take its time to consider the detail of the deal before deciding whether to support it.

He's previously said he could only back a deal which removes the EU's role in the governing of Northern Irish trade and Mr Sunak's treaty does not.

Under the protocol, the European Court of Justice has the final say on trade disputes involving Northern Ireland and any changes to EU single market trade rules would be applied there - both of which are red lines for the DUP.

But Mr Sunak said his deal introduces a new Stormont brake, allowing the assembly not only to have a say over EU laws but also to block them from applying in Northern Ireland.

“This will establish a clear process for which the democratically elected assembly can pull an emergency brake” on changes which would have a “significant and lasting” effect on everyday life, he said, but added that the UK government will have a veto.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey released a statement welcoming the "significant progress" which had been made but said "there can be no disguising the fact that in some sectors of our economy EU law remains applicable in Northern Ireland".

He added: "The DUP will want to study the detail of what has been published today as well as examining the detail of any and all underpinning legal texts. Where necessary we stand ready to engage with the government in order to seek further clarification, re-working or change as required."

The DUP - Northern Ireland's second biggest - has been refusing to form a powersharing government with majority-holding Sinn Fein in protest against the protocol.

It's caused political deadlock in Northern Ireland, with no legislature able to make decisions on a range of issues including measures which could reduce the cost of living for struggling families.

Sinn Fein supported the Northern Ireland Protocol in its previous form and said it will meet to assess the deal this evening but its leader appeared to nudge the DUP toward accepting it.

Mary Lou McDonald said it was "welcome" that an agreement had been reached, adding: “There is a real urgency to get the Northern Executive up and running.”

“All different parties need to sit down at the executive table taking the decisions which impact on people’s lives, that is where we should be," she said.

“There shouldn’t be delays in that. We have a health service in crisis, public sector workers out on the picket line.

“Where we need to be is making politics work and standing up for the people that we represent collectively and I think that’s where our energies and efforts need to be now.”

Conservative former prime minister Theresa May urged all MPs to back Rishi Sunak’s deal.

Mr Sunak said his new deal will "start making a positive difference to people’s lives in Northern Ireland almost immediately".

But he added: “I also recognise that parties and communities across Northern Ireland will want to take the time to consider the detail of what we’re announcing today. And we should give them the time and the space to do that. And I fully respect that.”

Talks between Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen, which lasted just short of an hour and 45 minutes, were held at the Fairmont Hotel in Windsor Park.

The King welcomes European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to Windsor Castle. Credit: PA

Ms von der Leyen met King Charles in Windsor following the talks, at the invitation of Number 10 - a move Downing Street was forced to defend.

Baroness Arlene Foster, the former DUP leader and first minister of Northern Ireland, said: “I cannot quite believe that No 10 would ask HM the King to become involved in the finalising of a deal as controversial as this one. It’s crass and will go down very badly in NI.”

The prime minister’s spokesman said “it’s not uncommon for His Majesty to accept invitations to meet certain leaders" and it is "fundamentally a matter for the palace".

Asked why the final protocol talks were taking place in Windsor, the spokesman said: “There are a number of occasions when these sorts of talks have been held in significant locations, this is no different.”

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Prime Minister Sunak has been criticised for conducting talks without consulting the DUP and Eurosceptics within his own party.

His official spokesman said: “Until we have the talks and we have the final deal, we won’t be sharing that more widely.

“What is true is that we have had multiple political leaders, businesses, parliamentarians, obviously the DUP, we’ve had discussions both to hear from them on their concerns but also to share as much information as possible as these negotiations have continued.”

Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, member of the influential European Research Group put Mr Sunak on notice of a possible Tory rebellion if the DUP does not support the deal, despite major concessions expected from the EU.

The former Cabinet minister told GB News his group's approval in the Commons would "depend on the DUP".

"If the DUP are against it, I think there will be quite a significant number of Conservatives who are unhappy," he said.

“So, if the DUP doesn’t think that it meets its test, that will be very influential among Conservative MPs,” Mr Rees-Mogg added to ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

“I’m afraid with all the EU deals the devil is in the detail, so when people say ‘we need to see the legal text’, they are not larking about, they really want to see it to understand what the effect is.”

What is in the new deal?

The new Windsor Framework “removes any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”, the PM said.

He set out a wide array of planned changes and reforms, covering trade, VAT regulation and the role of Stormont in EU laws that apply to Northern Ireland.

At the core of the deal is the creation of a new system for the flow of goods.

Anything destined for Northern Ireland will travel there as part of a “green lane”, with significantly fewer checks. Anything that could cross the border and enter the EU’s single market will travel through a separate red lane.

Mr Sunak said that the changes to the protocol will scale back the number of certificates required for traders moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, with customs paperwork removed too for people sending parcels or buying goods online.

He indicated changes to the movement of food too, claiming that anything made to UK rules will now be clear to be “sent to and sold” in NI. That will include sausages, one of the foodstuffs hit by protocol changes and which grabbed the attention of politicians in Belfast and Westminster alike.

“If food is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, then it will be available on supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland,” Mr Sunak said.

As part of the deal, the legal text of the protocol has also been amended on VAT. Under current arrangements, EU VAT and excise rules for goods generally apply in Northern Ireland.

Mr Sunak said that would now change, with the legal text of the protocol amended to allow the UK Government to “make critical VAT and excise changes for the whole of the UK”.

Alcohol duty, for instance, was mentioned – with Mr Sunak suggesting that the cost of a pint in the pub could be cut for Northern Irish drinkers.