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What’s the ‘Windsor Framework’ for Northern Ireland?

WINDSOR, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hold a press conference at Windsor Guildhall on February 27, 2023 in Windsor, England. EU President Ursula Von Der Leyen travelled to the UK today to meet UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to sign off on the agreement on the post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland. They agreed yesterday to continue their work in person towards shared, practical solutions for the range of complex challenges around the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) Photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Europe (Photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Europe)

After the UK left the European Union in 2020, the status of Northern Ireland became a bone of contention. Britain’s government complained that the post-Brexit trading arrangement for the region, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, was stifling the local economy. It threatened to impose its own solution, until a deal known as the “Windsor Framework” was struck on Feb. 27 to replace the most contentious aspects of the protocol. The agreement, which still needs formal approval on both sides, has the potential to transform Britain’s uneasy relationship with its most important trading partner.  

1. What is the Windsor Framework?

It’s a solution to allow Northern Ireland to remain within the EU’s single market and customs union while rolling back many of the cumbersome checks imposed on goods arriving from mainland Britain under the original Brexit deal. The UK government had complained that the burden of new paperwork was disrupting trade and effectively created an internal border within a sovereign country. The new framework includes a “green” and “red” lane system that will separate goods traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland from those continuing into the EU. Those not destined for the bloc will be subject to lighter border controls. 

2. Why was this such a thorny issue? 

The EU initially proposed concessions to reduce the customs burden on traders but refused to renegotiate the protocol, arguing that the UK had already accepted it was the best solution to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland to the south. Both sides have wanted to avoid that outcome due to the region’s long history of sectarian violence. The concern for the EU was to make sure the open border didn’t turn into a soft target for smuggling goods into its “single market,” which ensures the same standards and rules governing areas such as food safety. But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party campaigned for the protocol to be scrapped as it treated Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. The DUP refused to take its place in the region’s power-sharing government unless the protocol was replaced.  

3. So what changed?

There was growing concern that the continued lack of a functioning government in Northern Ireland would destabilize the region’s fragile politics. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 gave London and Brussels a common adversary, and a further incentive to put their Brexit squabbles behind them and present a more united front to the world. The exit of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who oversaw the break with the EU — in September 2022 was an opportunity to reset talks over the protocol in a more positive atmosphere. An important hurdle was cleared in January, when the EU agreed to use the UK’s live database tracking goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. 

4. What else was agreed?

Britain was also unhappy that the original Brexit deal allowed the European Court of Justice to oversee how the protocol was applied, as it didn’t want EU regulations to supersede UK laws. The new framework includes a new mechanism called the “Stormont Brake” (named after the region’s devolved governing assembly) for Northern Ireland to challenge amendments to existing EU law, while keeping the ECJ as the sole arbiter of EU regulations. There are also agreements on how UK taxation changes and subsidies for businesses apply in Northern Ireland. 

5. How might it still go wrong?

To secure a durable settlement, Johnson’s successor Rishi Sunak needs to convince the DUP and several Brexit-supporting members of his party to endorse the agreement. The hope is that the DUP will then re-form Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration in time for the 25th anniversary of the region’s 1998 peace treaty in April. If they vote against the deal, Sunak may have to rely on votes from opposition parties, which could damage him politically.  

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