Rishi Sunak is selling off our sovereignty
His new Northern Ireland deal shows how little regard he has for self-government.
From the get-go, there was something fishy about Rishi Sunak’s new post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade deal. It was trailed as a great breakthrough that would wash away the concerns of the stubborn holdouts of the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP, before this week, had been refusing to return to the Northern Ireland Assembly on the basis that all the post-Brexit Northern Ireland deals so far – the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework – have sold out UK sovereignty to appease the EU and its Single Market. We will not tolerate any trade deal that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and keeps us beholden to EU rules, the DUP insisted.
Now we’re told the problems have been ironed out. It’s a ‘Brexit breakthrough’, says the press. ‘Breakthrough in Belfast’, headlines cried as Sunak’s government unveiled its ‘sweetened deal’. The DUP seems to agree that the new deal is ‘sweeter’ than the others. It still has some ‘concerns’, it says, but it has nonetheless agreed to get back to Stormont and jumpstart the power-sharing executive. And yet here’s the thing: the BBC, and others, report that the new deal isn’t that different to the Windsor Framework that the DUP opposed with such passion. The new deal tweaks the framework, the Beeb says, ‘without changing any of its fundamental elements’.
Is anyone else confused? The DUP threw a year-long tantrum over the Windsor Framework, damning it for failing to address the ‘fundamental problems at the heart of our current difficulties’. This framework shows more respect for ‘EU sovereignty’ than for ‘the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom’, the DUP fumed. Yet now, the DUP seems content, for the time being at least, with a new deal that, at a ‘fundamental’ level, is the same as the framework. Perhaps, as one observer says, this party famous for saying ‘No Surrender’ has just committed a ‘volte face [that] amounts to a pretty comprehensive surrender’.
The BBC is right that the new deal is a continuation of the Windsor Framework. Titled ‘Safeguarding the Union’, it seeks to address some of the beefs of the DUP in order to coax it back to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Yet this deal, like earlier incarnations, still seems more enamoured with ‘EU sovereignty’ than UK sovereignty. For instance, it reduces the need for routine checks on consumer products moving from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, but other British products – including raw materials – will still face full custom checks when entering NI to ensure they do not deviate from EU regulations. So Brussels’ needs and desires will continue to override our internal market and our right to transport and trade things within our own sovereign territory however we damn well please.
The problem with all the deal-making about Northern Ireland and its status post-Brexit is that the integrity of the EU’s Single Market – a market we voted to leave, remember – has too often been elevated above the integrity of the United Kingdom. At times, the trade deals struck between Brexit Britain and Brussels have amounted to an economic annexation of Northern Ireland by Europe’s commissioners. So the Northern Ireland Protocol, which came into force in January 2021, brought in a vast new machinery of checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. In short, a sea border between Britain and NI; a partitioning, in trade terms at least, of our sovereign nation.
The Windsor Framework, unveiled in early 2023, didn’t improve things. Yes, it eased some of the onerous technicalities of checking goods as they moved from one part of the nation to another, for example by bringing in ‘green lanes’ and ‘red lanes’, which meant that goods staying in Northern Ireland wouldn’t be subjected to as many customs checks as goods that might go on to the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. And yet the problematic principle of all the post-Brexit deal-making remained intact – namely, that Northern Ireland, given it shares a land border with an EU member, will have to be treated differently to the rest of the UK. It will have to agree to abide by certain rules drawn up by a foreign power.
And this is still the case, for all the fanfare about the ‘breakthrough’ new deal. As barrister Steven Barrett says, the new deal maintains the ‘jurisdiction’ of EU law in certain areas of trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. ‘[The] EU can still control how goods flow from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK’, Barrett writes. So the question remains: is the UK a sovereign nation or not? Imagine if some unelected suit in Brussels could stop a lorry on its way from Manchester to Liverpool and inquire about the goods within – we would all recognise that as an intolerable interference with the internal life of the nation. Why do so many not see that when it happens in relation to Northern Ireland? It’s the same thing – the dilution of our sovereignty to appease a foreign market.
Strikingly, the new deal does something even worse than maintain the post-Brexit soft annexation of Northern Ireland. It also proposes a ‘legal requirement’ that all new legislation be ‘assessed’ to ensure it does not ‘impact… on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain’. In short, new laws drawn up in Britain will be screened to make sure they do not further complicate trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Think about what this means. It means law-making in this country will make itself subservient to what are essentially EU interests – namely, the supposed need for special rules about trading between Britain and Northern Ireland. Bit by bit, voluntarily, our elected lawmakers will read over new laws with an eye for whether they might rattle trade arrangements with Northern Ireland and thus tick off the EU. They will internalise the interests of the Single Market, behaving almost as stooges of a foreign power. Britain will inexorably align itself closer and closer to the EU in the name of maintaining those fragile special arrangements in Northern Ireland. And so Brexit dies not from brutish cancellation by the Remainer elites but by the thousand cuts of our supine political class that clearly never understood what Brexit was about in the first place. I’ll remind them: sovereignty.
‘We are going to do as we are told, by choice’, writes Barrett. Indeed. Rishi Sunak is selling off our sovereignty to keep Brussels happy. In June 2016, we voted to restore self-government, once and for all liberating our nation from the law-making of faraway officials over whom we have no control. Now the law-makers over whom we do have control look set to do the bidding of those faraway officials anyway. It makes sense, perversely: after all, if they were willing to offer up Northern Ireland to the god of Single Market integrity, why not offer up the whole idea of the UK while we’re at it? Brexit – which is to say, the fight for democratic self-rule – remains unfinished business.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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