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Windsor Framework sticking plaster covers many wounds

05 October 2023

Port of Larne.

Amidst a convulsion of mass indifference, the Windsor Framework became operational in the north of Ireland.  Under its terms there are imaginary red and green lanes for British goods. The green lane, for goods staying north of the border, flows freely. The red lane, for goods crossing the border, requires detailed documentation.

Insofar as the new regulation attracted any discussion, it was around the widespread illusion that the Democratic Unionist Party would agree to enter the Stormont executive and "get the executive working". The British are under the illusion that Unionists value Britishness above sectarian privilege. The Unionists are under the illusion that the British are concerned about their welfare. As light relief Sinn Féin hover in the background, proclaiming that they have no demands at all other than that they get their bums back on executive seats and have an opportunity to prove how the partition of Ireland can be a success under their management.

Yet in reality the Windsor framework is a sticking plaster over some fundamental problems. Brexit was always a massive assault by the right. The Tories were convinced that tearing up European regulation - that is, protections of environmental, health and workers’ rights would empower the British economy. Support for Brexit got a massive boost when they decided to co-opt the growing racist and anti-migrant sentiment in the country. That wasn't enough, so Boris Johnson lied about an "oven ready deal" that would provide a painless transition.

Boris never intended to keep his word about a Northern Ireland Protocol. He believed he could bluster his way to leaving Europe and keeping full access to the European Market. Now the Windsor agreement provides a fix, but does nothing about broader access to Europe or the ongoing social and political decay in Britain.

The dilemma in the North is quite different from that in Britain. The Democratic Unionist Party fervently advocated for Brexit because they saw it as a way to break the Good Friday Agreement.  The Tories dumped them to get a deal. Now their problems multiply. British betrayal, a changed status in the UK, increased trade with the South that they believe will lead to a United Ireland. As a result, they have added to the fragmentation of the unionist vote with many Unionists opposing Brexit. The Alliance vote has grown and, as a result of the split, Sinn Fein are now the largest party and entitled to the post of First Minister.

The British argue that the DUP will come around now that the Windsor Framework is in place. The Europe issue is important, but the main issue is that a large section of the DUP will not accept an apparently secondary position in Stormont behind Sinn Féin. Jeffrey Donaldson speaks in tongues, but he will not split his party and further fragment unionism.

The favoured position of many loyalists is the collapse of the administration and the return of direct rule. In the long run the British will either have to rewrite the details of the settlement to suit the DUP or remove the requirement for a forced coalition between the two major parties.

In the meantime, the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, has perfect freedom. Many social protections, for which he now has full responsibility, are left to fester on the grounds that Stormont must return and fulfil roles it never met when it was sitting. He has imposed a completely draconian budget and now proposes that the zone pay its way through overwhelming new austerity measures such as water and prescription charges.

Among the nationalist population the battle to maximise the Sinn Féin vote has also led to a collapse of anti-imperialist consciousness and the rise of bourgeois nationalism. The main aim is to do down the Unionists and win the patronage of the British. The main illusion now is that continued failure of the local executive will lead to joint administration by the British and Irish governments.

In reality the original Boris Johnson lie on which everything else rests, has a context. The context is Leo Varadkar, who exchanged the backstop guaranteed by the EU for utterly worthless promises. When the EU had to negotiate amongst the wreckage Dublin stepped back and indicated they would accept whatever the Europeans agreed. Their only interest is to turn a profit, and subordination to imperialism is the method.

But subordination extends further.  The reality is that the British have torn up all the bells and whistles, all the strands, that decorated the Good Friday Agreement. The latest move, amnesty for the crimes of the British forces, has been applied unilaterally with only the most minor protest from Dublin. The idea that they will call in Dublin, rather than simply impose a settlement in their own interests, is simply inconceivable.

The chaos of the recent Tory conference shows the decay that continues in Britain.  The inability to see Sir Keir Starmer as the voice of reform is the main obstacle to change. In Ireland the idea that Sinn Fein is the voice of resistance and that it will pose an alternative to a new, more reactionary Stormont or to the comprador regime in Dublin is also a barrier to a new resurgence.

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