Windsor Framework: How the new deal on the Northern Ireland protocol will work

New system a ‘decisive breakthrough’ says Sunak, who claims deal has ‘removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea’

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have announced an agreement in principle on the Northern Ireland protocol.

The EU and UK have reached a new deal to change trade rules for Northern Ireland in a bid to resolve the long-running post-Brexit disagreement and end the North’s political stalemate.

What are the latest developments with the protocol?

British prime minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have agreed, after meeting in Windsor in England, to make changes to the Northern Ireland protocol after months of EU-UK talks. Sunak called the new “Windsor Framework” a “decisive breakthrough” with the EU, saying the deal “removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”.

Remind me again, what is the protocol?

It is the part of the Brexit divorce deal between the EU and UK that covers trading rules in Northern Ireland that prevent custom checks and a hard border on the island of Ireland.

How does it work?

To avoid a politically divisive trade border re-emerging between Northern Ireland and the Republic, customs and regulatory documentary checks and inspections have, since 2021, been carried out between Britain and Northern Ireland at ports in Northern Ireland as EU rules on product standards and food health and sanitation continued to be followed in the North.


Who are opposed to the protocol?

Unionists wanted it changed because they believe a trade border between Northern Ireland and Britain undermined Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) objected to forming a new powersharing government unless it was fixed.

New post-Brexit trade arrangements for North

How are border customs checks changing under the Windsor Framework?

Goods arriving from Britain destined for Northern Ireland will travel through a new “green lane” where customs and regulatory paperwork, checks and duties will be scrapped, while goods at risk of moving on to the Republic or the rest of the EU will travel through a “red lane” where they will be subject to normal checks. Trade will be monitored by new EU-UK data-sharing arrangements using commercial data on trade flows rather than international customs processes.

What about food checks?

To ensure the same food products can be sold in Belfast as in Birmingham, food destined for consumption in Northern Ireland can pass through the inspection-free green lane at Northern Ireland’s ports through “bespoke arrangements under a new UK internal market scheme.”

The scheme will allow agri-food products being imported into Northern Ireland from Britain or other parts of the world to be subjected to a single document – electronically and remotely processed – confirming that the goods are staying in Northern Ireland. This will forego the need for official veterinarians or plant inspectors. Checks will only take place where there is a risk or intelligence about smuggling, criminality or specific risks to animal, plant or public health.

Bans on certain products, such as chilled sausages, entering Northern Ireland from Britain will be scrapped.

What about parcels being sent to Northern Ireland?

Where the old protocol would eventually, once grace periods lapsed, have required a full customs declaration for every consumer parcel entering the North, there will no such requirement under the Windsor Framework. Instead the UK has agreed that authorised parcel operators will share data, in batches, to monitor and manage any risks of smuggling into the EU market.

What about changes to VAT and excise duties?

Where the protocol tied Northern Ireland businesses to EU rules on VAT and alcohol duty, the new Windsor Framework allows Northern Ireland to benefit from UK-wide changes on alcohol duty and Britain’s zero-rates of VAT on energy-saving materials such as solar panels.

Are there changes giving Northern Ireland’s politicians a greater say?

Yes. The Windsor Framework will give the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont the ability to apply “an emergency brake” on new or amended EU goods rules. Under the protocol, some EU laws continued to apply in Northern Ireland but the North’s politicians could not influence them.

The brake would require 30 members of the Assembly from at least two parties – under the same “petition of concern” mechanism in the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement – request, in exceptional circumstances and as a last resort, that new or amended EU laws not be applied in Northern Ireland. Unlike the petition of concern mechanism, the Stormont Brake would not require cross-community consent with a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists voting to support it; it just requires the backing of 30 MLAs from at least two parties, not necessarily cross-community.

The brake cannot be triggered for “trivial” reasons and can only be used if there is something “significantly different” about a new EU rule and the 30 MLAs can show the rule has a “significant impact specific to everyday life that is liable to persist.”

Once pulled, the brake would give the UK government power to veto a new or amended EU rule suspending it from automatically applying in Northern Ireland. It can then only be applied if the UK and EU agree to this happening in their joint committee set up under the divorce deal.

What about the role of the European Court of Justice?

The oversight role of the ECJ – the subject of much opposition to the protocol from unionists – remains as the final arbiter of EU law but the EU and UK have agreed to resolve disputes that arise first within the joint structures set up under the Brexit divorce deal to address disagreements.

Any veto imposed by the UK on “the Stormont brake” can only be challenged through independent arbitration mechanisms, not the ECJ.

New text inserted into the protocol will protect specific arrangements for internal UK trade, which is subject to EU-UK arbitration rather than the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

Sunak said that, under the new deal, the “only EU law that applies in Northern Ireland under the framework is the minimum necessary to avoid a hard border with Ireland and allow Northern Irish businesses to continue accessing the EU market.”

What other changes are being made?

Medicines approved by the UK regulator will be automatically available in Northern Ireland.

Owners moving pets into Northern Ireland will no longer have to show paperwork. The only requirement will be for the owner to confirm the pet will not move into the EU.

Will British MPs get a vote on the deal?

Sunak said the UK parliament would “have a vote at the appropriate time”.