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The government is considering taking unilateral control over the implementation of the Windsor framework for Northern Ireland as ministers are concerned that the ongoing power vacuum at Stormont makes it difficult to implement parts of the post-Brexit deal.
Northern Ireland has been without a power-sharing government since early 2022. The region’s second-largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is refusing to sit in its political institutions in protest at post-Brexit arrangements for trade with Britain. which she believes undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Northern Ireland Office are currently examining how the UK government can ensure its deal with the European Union is fully implemented in the absence of devolved ministers whose support the region’s officials would normally provide received. instructions, PoliticsHome understands.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak agreed the Windsor Framework with the European Union earlier this year as a way to reduce trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain created by the original Northern Ireland Protocol, which ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson had negotiated.
The new system, which separates goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain into ‘green’ and ‘red’ lanes, will be phased in from early October.
However, the government has encountered difficulties in implementing parts of the treaty relating to border controls, which would normally be handled by Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, because there are no ministers in the post who can instruct Stormont officials to carry out the necessary work, according to Whitehall sources.
That’s why the government at Westminster is discussing the best way to gain more control over the process. One option could be to use the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to argue that it should take greater control over implementation to meet its international obligations agreed as part of the Windsor framework. However, it may be determined that new legislation is necessary.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says the Windsor deal in its current form does not address all his party’s concerns about Northern Ireland’s place in Britain, and has called on the government to provide further guarantees in legislation. The Government is expected to publish this legislation early next month, ahead of the DUP’s annual conference which starts on October 13. This could be enough to convince Donaldson to bring the DUP back into power-sharing, where he would serve as deputy Prime Minister to Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, although he is likely to face significant opposition from high figures within his own party.
On Thursday, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said “significant” work was being done to get Stormont up and running again, and talks with the DUP would continue.
One government source insisted that ministers in London would always have met Britain’s international obligations as set out in the Windsor deal, with or without functioning political institutions in Northern Ireland.
PoliticsHome understands that there is a view within the government that failure to implement the treaty in a timely manner also risks jeopardizing some of Sunak’s work to rebuild confidence in the EU after several years of post-Brexit -crime, is undone.
The tone between London and Brussels has improved significantly since the Prime Minister took office almost a year ago. This more positive atmosphere has helped the two sides reach a new agreement on Northern Ireland and also on the Horizon science programme. An agreement between Britain and the EU on law enforcement data sharing, which Prime Minister Sunak hopes will help his bid to tackle small boat crossings, is also expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Jess Sargeant, deputy director at the Institute for Government think tank, said she was “not surprised” that the government was planning to take more control over the implementation process, given the “uncomfortable” position the region’s officials are in left behind.
“The Northern Ireland civil service is in a very difficult position and needs clarity given the politically contentious issue,” she said PoliticsHome.
A government spokesperson said: “We are continuing the work to implement the Windsor Framework, and are engaging Northern Ireland parties as part of these efforts.”
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