Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal for Northern Ireland has been formally signed off, without the support of the province’s largest unionist party.
On Friday, the Windsor Framework was legally adopted in a meeting chaired by both Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic days after MPs voted overwhelmingly in its favour.
But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)—which this week voted against a key part of the new framework—suggested it would not be returning to the devolved government in Northern Ireland even if the deal was put in place.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had warned the DUP that there was no prospect of renegotiating the deal ahead of Friday’s meeting, which comes after Brussels also formally agreed to the key parts of the Windsor Framework at a European Council meeting.
The formal sign-off happened at a meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, with the foreign secretary and Sefcovic also due to attend a meeting of the Partnership Council, which is another of the implementation bodies under the Brexit deal.
In a joint statement on Friday afternoon, Cleverly and Sefcovic said the new arrangements address “in a definitive matter” the challenges in the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol over the last two years while “supporting and protecting the Good Friday Agreement.”
They also said the Windsor Framework protects “the integrity of the European Union’s single market, and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom’s internal market.”
“Both sides agreed to work together intensively and faithfully to implement all elements of the Windsor Framework,” the statement added.
“The United Kingdom and European Union also reaffirmed their intent to use all available mechanisms in the framework to address and jointly resolve any relevant future issues that may emerge.”
Ahead of the expected sign-off, a statement posted on the DUP’s website on Friday morning fiercely criticised both the deal and the Northern Ireland secretary.
“How many agreements and deals have become ‘international law’ only to be replaced by further deals and agreements that had to be implemented because there was a realisation that the earlier models were not fit for purpose?” said Gregory Campbell, MP for East Londonderry.
“Chris Heaton-Harris will have to ‘come to terms’ with the reality for all of us who actually live here, that whatever about agreements, laws and deals that come and go, politics and governance in Northern Ireland only works when there is a cross-community political consensus.”
Campbell said that the large government vote in favour of the Windsor Framework’s “Stormont brake” and the endorsement from the joint committee will not move Northern Ireland “one inch closer” to getting the necessary “cross-community political consensus.”
“That is the unchanging reality that he has to come to terms with,” Campbell added. “Progress is only made when power-sharing works with the support of unionists and nationalists.”
On Wednesday, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated the party’s no-go stance to power-sharing following Parliament’s overwhelming vote in favour of a key part of the Windsor Framework.
A total of 515 MPs voted in favour of implementing the new “Stormont brake,” with 29 opposing the UK–EU agreed mechanism.
In total, 22 Conservatives rebelled to vote against the regulations.
They included former party chairman Sir Jake Berry, former Cabinet minister Simon Clarke, and former Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Six DUP MPs, along with independent MP Andrew Bridgen, also opposed the regulations.
Labour voted unanimously in favour of the Windsor Framework mechanism, which would allow a minority of lawmakers in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont to formally flag concerns about the imposition of new EU laws in Northern Ireland, a move that could see the UK government veto their introduction in the region.
Speaking following the Commons vote, Donaldson said his party would not commit to “restore the political institutions.”
He told MPs: “I want Stormont restored on a sustainable basis, on a stable basis where there is cross-community consent and consensus. That does not exist at the moment.”
The UK government hopes that the new deal on the protocol can mark a step towards British participation in the EU’s 100 billion euro Horizon programme, with science and research likely to feature in official discussions between the pair.
Cleverly and Sefcovic will also discuss a recent agreement between the UK, Ireland, and the EU on Peace Plus, the cross-border peace funding programme.
The continuing stand-off at Stormont suggests the prospects for a return to power-sharing in time for next month’s 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement remain bleak.
The Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly have been suspended since the DUP walked out last year in protest at the way the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson was operating.
PA Media contributed to this report.