Give credit where it is due - the deal that Rishi Sunak has agreed with the European Union is, on the face of it, a good one. It allows for most goods to pass from Great Britain to the North of Ireland through a green channel without regular checks, as long as said goods are to remain in NI. Goods that are destined for the Irish Republic and thus entering the EU Single Market have to be declared and go through the red channel, with checks at the port of departure. The exception to this process is agricultural livestock. Ireland in general has a history of been, er, versatile, when it comes to the movement and counting of livestock for the purposes of receiving subsidies, so one can understand why the same curtesies has not been extended to certain parts of the farming industry.
The Windsor Framework has already received the support of most ardent Conservative Brexiters. The DUP has yet to declare but one is sure they have collectively put on their thinking caps (bowler hats) and are examining the text for excuses to say no. The fact that there has not been a rapid outcry is a good sign that raising valid objections will strain the finest minds that Ulster Unionism has to offer.
Rishi Sunak himself stated that Northern Ireland would have a great deal - access to the EU Single Market AND to the United Kingdom internal markets. Good for them - this was the same deal that the rest of us had before the iniquity of Brexit was inflicted upon us all - but it is even better for those of Irish descent whether still resident in NI or not. As it is widely known, those born on the island of Ireland (and their descends for two generations) have the option of taking an Irish passport. This means that individuals have the right to EU freedom of movement should they choose to exercise that option. Many have - including myself.
In other words, of all the words of cakeism made by Brexiters ahead of the 2016 poll, only the people of Northern Ireland can actually make good on the otherwise vapid promises.
Various members of the SNP have already been on their hind legs in Westminster asking why can’t Scotland have the Single Market too? Actually for once they are right - now there is absolutely no reason why Scotland cannot have such an option. There would not even been the necessity for green and red channels across the land border. Any goods moving between England and Scotland would simply be assumed to be for the UK market. The English ports would act as they do now. The only checks required would be those goods leaving Scottish ports. Goods originating in England and Wales would have to automatically go through the red channel. Goods originating in Scotland would go through the green channel. The only real challenge would be ensuring that the checks are enforced to a suitable standard to protect the EU Single Market from abuse. The other implication for Scottish goods is that they would have to conform to EU standards and regulations and, frankly, this is no bad thing. Like the North of Ireland, Scotland too can have the best of both words, as long as trade is concerned.
The UK framework in which this is delivered is a potentially interesting question. Liberal Democrats such as myself favour a federal system for the UK, with each nation setting their own internal mechanisms while having the advantages of remaining part of the Union of the United Kingdom. Now, my politics has never been about what is best for The Nation or The People, but really what delivers best outcomes for the majority of people and families within the UK. Barriers to trade and to freedom of movement tend to be against the interests of normal people. We are seeing this right now with empty supermarket shelves - this is affecting us all and the food price inflation is well beyond the stated current level of about ten percent. Thirty or forty percent inflation for food items is common, and is especially hitting the poorest in our communities the hardest. This situation cannot be allowed to stand.
There is a lot of pressure on the outcome of the next general election. Labour is expected to win but are repeatedly pledging that there can be no return to the Single Market - exactly the mechanism that would alleviate the current food crisis. Rejoining the Single Market will not solve all the issues - there are global factors at play which all nations are subject to. Great Britain has all these challenges and the hobble of Brexit on top. Liberal Democrats should be calling out this situation and, in my own opinion, saying we were right about Brexit all along - because we are. Brexit continues to be a huge exercise in national self-harm. Labour continues to be vague and all the Conservatives can offer is harsher measures against the cold and bedraggled refugees who wash up on our shores in small boats
I should finish the blog with the paragraph above. Sadly the logic does not end there. Sunak’s Windsor Framework will work for Scotland. In doing so it potentially removes one of the biggest barriers to Scottish independence. One of the arguments against independence was the trade issues that would exist between the remainder of the UK (rUK) and Scotland. So what happens if Scotland were to go independent? That depends on the attitude of both the Westminster government and Brussels. While the Windsor Framework provides a model for rUK-Scottish trade, it may also be the case that either the EU or Westminster says that, since Scotland in no longer in the EU, Windsor can no longer apply. Windsor would provide a very attractive solution but is by no means certain.
When it comes to Freedom of Movement, that would be more complicated but, again, not impossible. Just as Irish businesses are free to hire people from the EU, and Irish citizens are free to take holidays and work in the the EU, Scotland could do the same. Workers would have no right to work in rUK. The seasonal worker issue would be solved for Scottish agriculture. In fact, the only folk who would be unhappy are the fishing fleets of the North East as Scottish waters would be reopened to foreign fleets. But then, how long is that particular tail going to be allowed to continue to wag the dog? At least the fishing industry will be allowed once again to land their catches in European ports and the inshore fleet could resume direct exports to the continent - albeit not via English ports.
I am sure that in the construction of the Windsor Framework, the focus was rightly on the island of Ireland, the preservation of peace and restoration of functioning democracy at Stormont. The unintended consequence might be to throw a lifeline to Scottish nationalism. Mind you, I have previously written how the Conservatives have used the threat of the SNP in keeping Labour down in England and therefore Westminster.
Overall though, Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal is a potential game changer for Scottish independence. Many issues still remain though. If Brexit is bad, the break between Scotland and England will be even more painful. But now it is more possible. Much depends on the attitude of Labour and how they address the challenges that face us all, presuming of course that they win the next general election. It is theirs to win but one is haunted by spectre of 1992. Nothing is ever certain.
Liberal Democrats, in my opinion, should be addressing the food and energy crises head on and the factors that are making them worse - with Brexit being a major one. After all, we have been right on many issues but chasing opinion polls and pandering to error have got us nowhere.
Time for the party to be confident, time to be brave.