Australian Outlook

In this section

Rishi Sunak’s Brexit Conundrum

28 Mar 2023
By Malcolm Campbell
The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holds a joint press conference with the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen in Windsor Guildhall. Source: Simon Walker /

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recent deal over Northern Ireland received a favourable reception in most quarters. The acknowledgement that the Windsor Framework puts Northern Ireland in an “unbelievably special position,” however, has raised the ire of Scottish nationalists.

Northern Ireland has proved the most challenging knot in the United Kingdom’s (UK) bid to extricate itself from the European Union (EU). With all parties anxious to uphold the Good Friday Peace Agreement and maintain a soft border between the Republic of Ireland and the North, former prime minister Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol effectively moved the customs border between the UK and Europe from the Irish land border to the Irish Sea. Johnson’s agreement, which came into force on 1 January 2021, resulted in red tape that inhibited trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and created an unequal tax regime within the UK. For Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the symbolic marginalisation of the North within the UK proved as troubling as the administrative woes.

In May 2022, the Northern Ireland election saw Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party in the Legislative Assembly, with the DUP relegated to second place. Disturbed at its election failure and opposed to the recently implemented protocol, the largest Unionist party refused to participate in Northern Ireland’s power sharing arrangements. It demanded changes in the protocol as a condition of re-joining in the political process. The DUP stance placed significant pressure on the UK government to renegotiate the Brexit deal.

The Windsor Framework

The new arrangement negotiated between Prime Minister Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was unveiled on 27 February this year. Known as the Windsor Framework, the deal provides for goods shipped from Britain that are destined only for Northern Ireland consumers to pass through a “green lane,” avoiding the current onerous customs checks and ensuring UK internal market rules apply to Northern Ireland. The framework also addresses what the UK government terms “the democratic deficit” of the former protocol. A new measure, the so-called “Stormont brake,” exists in the framework to allay Unionist concerns that the EU retains too much power. The brake provides the UK government the right to disallow any future EU rules from taking effect in Northern Ireland.

In the cordial joint declaration, the UK and the EU acknowledge “the joint solutions reflect the unique circumstances and challenges on the island of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom’s Internal Market.” The Irish Government also welcomed the newly negotiated framework, with Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin, expressing hope that it would enable the speedy resumption of power sharing in Northern Ireland.

The Windsor Framework enjoys considerable momentum following its announcement. Commentators have remarked on the evidently warm working relationship between Prime Minister Sunak and President von der Leyen, a connection likely enhanced by the parties’ collaboration in the current European response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sunak also entered the negotiations without the Brexit baggage of the former prime minister, Boris Johnson. King Charles hosted President von der Leyen for tea following the announcement of the renegotiated deal, a symbolic endorsement that attracted some subsequent public criticism.

Selling the Framework

In promoting the Windsor Framework, Prime Minister Sunak is navigating a narrow channel. On one side, he needs to uphold the position that the Brexit promise is fulfilled and that this new deal enhances the UK’s political independence from Europe. With Boris Johnson still popular among Conservative Party members, and appearing interested in resuming occupancy of 10 Downing Street, Sunak needs to be careful not to alienate the right of his party.

He also needs to bring on board the Democratic Unionists. So far, their response has been guarded. Visiting Washington for Saint Patrick’s Day festivities, DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson resisted appeals by President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to endorse the Windsor Framework and commit to the resumption of power sharing. In fact, in a cool response to Schumer’s warning that he would “not support any trade deal between the US and the UK if any settlement undermines the Good Friday Agreement,” Donaldson told one television network “I would urge the senator to read some history books. Maybe he’d learn a little bit more about what really happens and the reality of the situation.” Some DUP figures, including MP Ian Paisley, have stated they will vote against the new arrangements. However, in pressing for any additional changes to the new framework, Donaldson risks overplaying his hand. Public opinion polls show an increasing level of regret over the UK decision to leave the European Union and impatience at Brexit’s failure to deliver the riches promised by its advocates.

Notably, while upholding the importance of Brexit, Sunak’s recent rhetoric is more conciliatory towards the EU than that of his predecessors. He has not shied away from highlighting the economic benefits of Northern Ireland’s less fettered European connection. Speaking during a visit to a Coca-Cola factory outside of Belfast, the prime minister urged approval of his agreement. Selling its benefits, he stated that “Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position—unique position in the entire world … in having privileged access, not just to the UK home market, which is enormous… but also the European Union single market.” “The North,” he commented, is “the world’s most exciting economic zone.”

Why Not the Scots?

Critics charge that this rhetoric shows the folly of Brexit. The prime minister’s enthusiastic endorsement of the European market has provoked an understandable reaction in Scotland, where 62 percent of voters supported the remain side in the 2016 EU referendum. Responding to a question in the Scottish Parliament, Ivan McKee, the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise, called out the special treatment afforded to Northern Ireland. “The framework does not resolve burdensome Brexit barriers for Scotland, while Northern Ireland will still, of course, benefit from being part of the single market. Scotland must get the right to choose our own future—one that takes us back into the EU, with all the benefits that that will generate.”

In highlighting the unparalleled economic opportunity presented by Northern Ireland’s special access to Europe, Prime Minister Sunak implicitly acknowledges the disadvantageous impact of Brexit on other parts of the United Kingdom. With the opposition Labour Party postulating that, on its current economic trajectory, the nation’s per capita GDP will fall below that of Poland by 2030, it seems likely pressure will mount elsewhere in the UK for the chance to share in some of Northern Ireland’s economic good fortune.

Malcolm Campbell is Professor of History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, where he teaches Irish and Australian history.  A graduate of the University of New South Wales, he has held visiting appointments at the Australian National University, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Liverpool. Campbell has published widely on the history of Irish emigration. His most recent book is Ireland’s Farthest Shores: Mobility, Migration, and Settlement in the Pacific World, published in 2022 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.