U.K. Lawmakers Approve Stormont Brake in Northern Ireland Brexit Deal

LONDON — British lawmakers on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly in favor of a key component of a long-awaited deal on Northern Ireland trade rules, an emphatic victory for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as he tries to resolve one of the most vexing legacies of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Despite the strong backing of the agreement, the leading unionist party in the North, which seeks to remain part of the United Kingdom, said that it did not accept the deal and would refuse to form a local government, signaling more political turmoil ahead.

Several prominent members of the governing Conservative Party also broke ranks with the government and voted against the part of the deal that was under debate, including Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, two former prime ministers. Nonetheless, the measure passed in a landslide, 515 to 29.

The vote on Wednesday was on just one element of the agreement, known as the Stormont Brake, which would allow Northern Ireland to block the implementation of any “significantly different” new European rules on goods. The measure was aimed at addressing the North’s concerns that Brussels would have too much control over its trade rules. But the leading unionist party, the D.U.P., rejected the Stormont Brake as insufficient.

The lopsided nature of the vote was good news for Mr. Sunak, who has championed the broader trade deal, known as the Windsor Framework, that was negotiated with the European Union last month.

The vote on the Stormont Brake on Wednesday was the first time that British lawmakers had had a chance to weigh in on the deal, so it had been seen as a measure of their approval.

The D.U.P. said this week that it would not vote for the Windsor Framework agreement, and as the vote on the Stormont Brake approached, its leaders confirmed that they had no plans either to enter into a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland’s devolved local assembly, known as Stormont. Northern Ireland’s other largest parties, including a different unionist party, have said that they support the framework.

“I have consistently indicated that fundamental problems remain notwithstanding progress made,” Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the D.U.P., said in a post on Twitter before the vote. “Consequently there is not a sustainable basis at this stage to enable us to restore Stormont.”

Speaking in Parliament a short time later, Mr. Donaldson said his party believed that the Windsor Framework agreement harmed Northern Ireland’s standing in the internal market of the United Kingdom, but he noted that he was willing to work with the government on “outstanding issues,” adding, “We’ve got to get it right.”

The British government has made it clear there are no plans for substantial changes.

Katy Hayward, a professor of politics at Queen’s University in Belfast, said that the rhetoric around the vote also exposed the deep divisions with unionism in Northern Ireland and the clear split between the party’s leader, Mr. Donaldson, and other harder-line members.

“Longer-term I think the political leadership realizes this is kind of unsustainable as a position and they will have to make a decision at some point,” she said. Early polling has indicated there is frustration over the deadlock in establishing a local government.

On On Wednesday morning ahead of the vote, Ian Paisley Jr., a hard-line D.U.P. member of Parliament and the son of the party’s founder, said the Windsor Framework would still set the nation apart from the rest of the United Kingdom and effectively make it a “no-man’s land” and border zone subject to European trade laws.

“I do not see how unionists could possibly go back into government whilst this problem remains,” he said.

Like the other nations in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has a locally elected assembly, and the ministers in it make decisions on a number of issues like health and social care, as well as education. But that assembly is contingent on power sharing between the country’s unionists and nationalist parties after a deal brokered during peace accords in the country.

The D.U.P. had been refusing to enter government until the previous agreement to manage trade in Northern Ireland, known as the Northern Ireland protocol, was resolved. The party collapsed the Stormont executive in February 2022 because of its opposition to that trade arrangement.

And after an election in May 2022 led to the largest nationalist party, Sinn Fein, winning the majority of seats in that legislature for the first time, the party again refused to form a government because of the protocol.

London and Brussels had signed up to those trade rules for the territory in 2020, but it ignited protests almost immediately, and Britain had been pushing to renegotiate the deal ever since. And in that time, there has been no government in Stormont.

In the absence of lawmakers, civil servants manage daily affairs, but many broader matters remain neglected and little is done to pass or carry out new policies.

Mr. Paisley, asked during morning news briefing how he would explain that stance to the people of Northern Ireland who have not had a functioning local assembly for months, told reporters: “I’ll tell you this, we are not moving. We need this fixed. And this will be about who blinks first.”

The new agreement from Mr. Sunak and the European Union had been expected to open a warmer chapter in British-E.U. relations after a prolonged stalemate. It was also expected to make way for the political problems in Northern Ireland to be resolved ahead of a visit by President Biden in April to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which helped end decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles.”

But it appears that the possibility of re-establishing a functioning government in Northern Ireland may still be a long way off.

Ms. Hayward said that despite the lack of support of the unionist party for the Windsor Framework, the agreement itself signaled a reset in U.K. and E.U. relations.

“We’ve had a legacy here of years of contention around Northern Ireland post-Brexit and a lot of antagonism being stoked up toward either side,” she said. “So that causes the most lingering damage in Northern Ireland itself and the political system, most particularly the views of people across the political spectrum.”

That is significant ahead of the Good Friday Agreement anniversary, because a positive relationship between Britain and Europe, and by extension Ireland, is essential for peace in Northern Ireland.

But, she said, even though trying to restore power-sharing in Stormont is going to be “quite a difficult process that will require care and time,” the new agreement signaled a level of relationship repair between Britain and Europe, and Britain and Ireland, key factors in Northern Ireland’s fragile peace.

“At least we have the foundation for that now,” she said.

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