British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Monday clinched in principle a deal on Northern Ireland, one of the biggest wounds Brexit had left open, it was reported.
Sunak underlined that the new Windsor accord is expected to preserve the delicate balance of the Good Friday peace agreement with the IRA while protecting the aspirations and identity of all people in Northern Ireland.
The new protocol is to reduce customs controls within the UK by facilitating trade without establishing a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which could jeopardize the peace accords, it was explained.
The Northern Ireland conflict (1968-1998) pitted the so-called Unionists (of the Protestant religion, the majority in the region), in favor of preserving ties with the United Kingdom, against the Republicans (mostly Catholics, a demographic the minority who favored independence or the integration of the province into the Republic of Ireland). The Good Friday peace agreement, signed in Belfast in 1998, put an end to the violence but required no physical borders be erected on the island.
Before Brexit, trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland took place with few restrictions as both territories belonged to the European common market and followed the same rules. But that has changed and while Northern Ireland should have stayed outside of the European Union, in practical terms it seemed as if it had remained inside due to its intangible borders with the independent Republic to the south. Hence, it was decided that the customs office should be moved to the sea that separates the island of Ireland from the island of Great Britain. This agreement, reached during Boris Johnson's government, was called the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has generated political instability and even some outbreaks of violence, including the Feb. 22 shooting of Police Inspector John Caldwell by the self-appointed New IRA.
With Caldwell still hospitalized, Sunak and Von der Leyen remembered the officer at the beginning of their joint press conference. The deal reached Monday will determine how border checks are handled in Northern Ireland. According to The Guardian, Sunak said that the UK and the EU have had their differences, but they were friends who were at the beginning of a “new chapter” in their relationship.
“I’m pleased to report that we have now made a decisive breakthrough. Together we have changed the original protocol and are today announcing the new Windsor framework,” Sunak was quoted as saying. “Today’s agreement delivers smooth-flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our union, and safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland,” he added. Sunak also said he expects Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and other parties to “take time” to evaluate the protocol deal.
Von der Leyen called the result of the negotiations “extraordinary,” noting that the agreement would ensure that all food and medicines available in Britain are accessible in Northern Ireland too.