There are serious differences between the claims UK ministers have made about the agreement and those of the EU.
It is only six days since the Prime Minister made a statement in the House of Commons on the Windsor Framework and the implications for Northern Ireland. No one had a real opportunity to study the voluminous and complex papers, only published shortly before the statement.
So, is the “unfinished business” of the Northern Ireland Protocol finished? Not so. During the statement, I asked the Prime Minister to respond to questions of democracy that arise on both the substance and the procedures involved. In particular, the making of EU laws and the European Court, the Joint Committee and its procedures, and the Stormont brake – not to mention the context of sovereignty in the entire process under Section 38 of the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement Act. This enables the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Withdrawal Agreement to be overridden.
He confirmed that he would look forward to answering questions. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, asked a similar question, and the Prime Minister, to his credit, agreed that they too would be given the time and space, and that he stood ready to provide any clarifications.
There is an inconsistency between the claims made by the EU Commission and by the British Government. The only way to resolve these inconsistencies and contradictions is for meaningful and accurate answers to the questions, including pressing for an exit clause. The European Scrutiny Committee has invited the Prime Minister to do so on March 14.
The Committee has the power to call for persons, papers and evidence under its standing orders. These questions include the making of EU laws, of which around 670 have been imposed already on the voters of Northern Ireland since Brexit without any involvement from Westminster or Northern Ireland MPs. These were made behind closed doors by majority vote of the European Council of Ministers without even a transcript.
This is not democratic consent – no other democratic country in the world would accept this, and the so-called Stormont brake is underwhelmingly inconsistent with the full constitutional consent demanded by the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement.
The Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee “Decision” is, at present, only a draft. To have effect, it must be adopted by the UK and the EU in that Committee, which has not yet met.
This is a crucial meeting, co-chaired by a UK minister. The Decision could be amended before the Joint Committee sits, and the Government can still make representations to the EU beforehand. It is essential that the accumulating uncertainties, risks and criticisms are answered by the Prime Minister before that Joint Committee sits. Only then will Parliament and the people of the UK be able to judge whether the claims made for the deal are justified in the national interest.
There has been a vast tide of new information as various experts, groups and individuals, including the European Research Group and those in Northern Ireland, raise ever-increasing practical questions and concerns about the vital issues of real democratic consent and the nature of the deal.
This analysis is crucial in the national interest and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and to the Good Friday Agreement and stability. The Windsor Framework does not dispose of the Northern Ireland Protocol. It amends it. Both the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Good Friday Agreement are based on community consent in Northern Ireland. There is substantial opposition.
It is to be recalled that on October 16, 2019, Boris Johnson came forward with proposals which led to our leaving the EU, save only for the unfinished business of Northern Ireland, represented by his Northern Ireland Protocol. His government was enduring a deep paralysis created by Conservative backbench Remainers working with the opposition to frustrate progress on our withdrawal from the EU.
All this had been preceded by the unacceptable Chequers deal and the third attempted Withdrawal Agreement, which was voted down by the Spartans on March 29, 2019, and by the resignation of Theresa May. This led to Boris Johnson’s election as prime minister, resulting in the massive majority for Brexit in the December 2019 general election. Immediately, the Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020 was passed, including Section 38 guaranteeing UK sovereignty.
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which sorted out the issue of sovereignty, the integrity of the territorial jurisdiction of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, and practical issues affecting business and trade, was passed by the elected House of Commons without amendment by 72 votes. It is now in the House of Lords like the Mary Celeste, awaiting its final stages. The EU demanded that it be withdrawn without any right to do so.
The Windsor Framework is part of the price paid. However, according to Lords rules “A Commons Bill may not be withdrawn in the House of Lords” – the Parliament Acts still apply.
Now is the opportunity and time to answer the questions.
Sir Bill Cash MP is chair of the European Scrutiny Committee