Why The Windsor Framework makes sense

2 Mar 2023 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 2 Mar 2023

Pic: 10 Downing Street

At its heart, the debate about membership of the EU and the subsequent falling out over the protocol was a clash caused by different visions, both of which are now impossible to achieve.

On the one side was the vision of absolute (British) parliamentary sovereignty.

This has its modern political roots in the writings of Enoch Powell who identified parliamentary sovereignty as the defining feature of a Britain which had lost its empire. His arguments were taken up by Jacob Rees-Mogg and others in the ERG group and helped define their stance on Brexit. They, in turn had a strong influence on their allies in the DUP.

Powell and his followers believed that the UK parliament and it alone should be the supreme legislature for the UK. Preserving its power was the ultimate expression of British nationalism, and was more important than the interests of business, of jobs and of the economy.

In the early 1970s Powell was so opposed to then Prime Minister Edward Heath’s pro-European stance that he encouraged Tory supporters to vote Labour and then left the party to join the Ulster Unionists.

He argued that the preservation of British sovereignty and independence was an end for which “any disadvantage and any sacrifice are a cheap price.”

In 1971 he told a French audience: “It is a fact that the British parliament in its paramount authority occupies a position in relation to the British nation which no other elective assembly in Europe possesses. Take parliament out of the history of England and that history itself becomes meaningless. Whole lifetimes of study cannot exhaust the reasons why this fact has come to be; but fact it is, so that the British nation could not imagine itself except with and through its parliament. Consequently the sovereignty of our parliament is something other for us from what your assemblies are for you.”

To follow in that tradition is to assert that parliamentary sovereignty is what defines Britain; that any erosion of that sovereignty is unacceptable; that the Conservative Party is patriotic, and that therefore true Conservatives should and must oppose any arrangement that cedes sovereignty to Europe even if that comes at a cost.

This is not the politics of negotiation and compromise, it is an absolutist position.

It is also a position which is no longer possible to achieve whether or not there is a Brexit deal, because absolute sovereignty is incompatible with globalisation and, like it or lump it, we now live in a globalised, interconnected world.

This is especially the case where it is possible, and clearly within Northern Ireland’s economic interests to remain in the Single Market for goods which will necessitate Northern Ireland being subject to the European Court of Justice.

The other vision was born on the other side of the Irish Sea. It was of an Ireland, within an evolving Europe, where national boundaries did not seem as important.

This notion, promoted by John Hume and often recycled through his “single transferable speech” was that over time, as people saw themselves more and more as Europeans it was possible to be British or Irish, and European in the same territorial space.

Through that process traditional animosities would fade as people became comfortable with a different view of national and cultural identity. It wasn’t even necessary to understand what was happening to be influenced by this process.

Hume then sold to the governments and to Europe that the principle of respecting diversity, a central EU theme, was critical to the resolution of our conflict. His lobbying persuaded the European Union to see that it too had a role in peace, which resulted in the EU making funding available for peace building. It was a sound and logical case to make. After all, one of the main drivers for the formation of the Union itself was conflict resolution: the desire to end the European wars that had scarred the continent for centuries.

It is also unrealisable. Now that the UK has left the European Union, shared European citizenship can no longer be a means by which Irish identities merge and fuse.

That’s a real shame because the conflict from which we have emerged was not one which had a clear winner and loser and the settlement which followed it reflects that: it is a fudge, riddled with contradictions that make sense to those who want to build peace but not necessarily to zealots not willing to compromise.

Those who were around will remember the phrase "constructive ambiguity" which was the essence of the Good Friday Agreement and that rather than legalistic pedantry is the key to making progress here. 

Thus post Brexit and post globalisation we have to find a settlement that addresses the concerns of communities in Northern Ireland, both of whom have addressed the issue from incompatible and unachievable positions.

The Windsor Framework provides us with that opportunity. It is not going to achieve all that anyone wants but it will provides what they need.

On the one hand it has given the DUP the opportunity to extricate itself from what was looking to be an impossible position with a degree of honour.

If it is accepted as the way forward the Assembly can become operational again, governance can function and parties will be in a unique position to gain economic leverage from Northern Ireland’s unique relationship with the European Union.

It would also give parties the opportunity to re-set and re-build relationships on a different, more mature footing.

There are no winners or losers in the Windsor Framework just as there were none in the agreement that ended conflict.

It is not known what the DUP will decide to do by way of response to it, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the Conservative Party wants to move on, extract what benefits it can from the resulting goodwill from the EU and prepare for the next election.

The wisest course for the DUP would be to take the credit for the gains in the new agreement, to get back into government and reap the benefits from Northern Ireland’s unique position of being inside the single market for goods whilst outside for all other purposes.

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