Explained | Understanding the Windsor framework

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and how did it lead to disruptions in trade between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom? What is the source of tension between the Unionists and Republicans of Northern Ireland? Will the new framework come into effect immediately?

March 01, 2023 10:31 pm | Updated March 02, 2023 01:47 pm IST

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen hold a joint press conference following their meeting at the Fairmont Hotel in Windsor, west of London, on February 27, 2023.

Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen hold a joint press conference following their meeting at the Fairmont Hotel in Windsor, west of London, on February 27, 2023. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: The United Kingdom and the European Union struck a deal on February 27 regarding post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, with a view to remove the border between Britain and Northern Ireland running through the Irish Sea. The fact that the Republic of Ireland remained with the EU after Brexit led to complications on the trade front, a wrinkle that the U. K.’s conservative government ironed out with the Northern Ireland Protocol. However, the Protocol, which allowed EU customs rules to apply across Northern Ireland, led to tensions in the province. The Windsor framework is the latest attempt at a remedy to the political complexities that have impacted trade and sentiments in the area.

What is the backdrop?

Ever since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 established the Irish Free State, the island’s counties comprising Northern Ireland, remained a part of the U.K. The political split on the island was exacerbated by growing tensions, especially from the 1960s onwards, with spiralling violence between Unionists, who were set on Northern Ireland remaining within the U.K., and the Republicans, who favoured unification with the Republic of Ireland. Over the following three decades of attacks that came to be known as “The Troubles”, more than 3,500 people died and many hundreds of thousands were injured. This dark saga on the island ended only after the Good Friday Agreement was hammered out in 1998 between Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern of the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland respectively. A key takeaway from the Agreement was that, respecting the wishes of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the province would remain a part of the U.K. The people of the province would continue to be governed by blended political institutions, based on power-sharing between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Also Read The Hindu Editorial | Return to troubles: On Brexit and the Good Friday agreement

Why were there trade tensions?

These carefully constructed arrangements faced an imminent challenge with the prospect of Brexit, and that led, in 2019, to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which allowed EU customs rules to apply in Northern Ireland. This was to avoid a hard customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Specifically, under the Protocol, Northern Ireland would formally be outside the EU single market, yet EU rules on the free movement of goods and customs union would continue to apply. While the Protocol promoted peace and harmony on the island, it de facto cut Northern Ireland off from the UK in terms of trade by imposing, in effect, a hard customs border in the Irish Sea. This aggravated Northern Ireland unionists who argued that it was unfair that goods could not flow freely between the province and the rest of the UK.

How does the Windsor framework attempt to resolve trade issues?

The Windsor framework seeks to address the aforementioned disruptions to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol. It does so by permitting free trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland through the use of green and red lanes for goods flowing into Northern Ireland. Green lane goods will have fewer checks and controls, including no customs checks or rules of origin. Red lane goods under the framework will be subject to full checks and controls to preserve the EU’s single market. In a bid to ease the impact on farmers, agri-food goods such as meat and dairy will have reduced checks and controls, and food retailers, including supermarkets, wholesalers, and caterers, will be able to move agri-food via the green lane. The prohibition on certain chilled meats from Great Britain being sold in Northern Ireland will be removed. The U.K. and EU leaders are hoping that this would lead to greater availability of British goods in Northern Ireland markets, including both foods and medicines.

Will the framework resolve all outstanding trade issues in the area?

While the Windsor arrangement is aimed at protecting Northern Ireland’s position within the U.K., and restoring its people’s sovereignty, it is by no means an established working arrangement yet. For one, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak might be anticipating political blowback from hard-line Tory Brexiteers, who might be incensed at the continuing applicability of some EU customs rules in Northern Ireland. Objections to the new arrangement might also be centred on the ‘Stormont brake’, an emergency measure that permits Northern Ireland’s devolved government to quickly halt new EU laws from being imposed on the province — a measure that London retains the right to veto. Second, the U.K. and the EU will have to pass new legislation to implement some parts of the framework, especially the proposed regulations in areas such as regulation of trade in medicines, and checks on animals and plants. Ultimately, which EU rules will be accepted in Northern Ireland and which will not, depends on the balance of power between the Unionists and Republicans in the province. However, the Windsor framework certainly scores points as a pragmatic compromise with the EU.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.