March 1, 2023 - 10:10am


In the 1975 referendum on Britain’s place in the then-Common Market, the two sides of Northern Ireland’s otherwise intractable sectarian divide found themselves fighting in the same corner — against European membership. For some reason this little quirk of history popped into my head yesterday as I whiled away an hour before lunch at an exhibition of old Northern Irish election posters on display in the Linen Hall in Belfast. Here we were, I thought, almost 50 years after the first referendum on Europe and the issue is still doing strange things to the political debate.

In the 36 hours or so since the publication of Rishi Sunak’s “Windsor Framework” on Monday afternoon, an odd alliance has formed to dismiss one of its most important pillars, the so-called “Stormont Brake”. Under this new lever, just 30 Northern Irish assembly members are needed from two political parties to potentially stop new EU rules applying in the province. The way it works is that once this blocking minority is formed, the British government can unilaterally veto the new rules applying in Northern Ireland. The reason this is so significant is that it gives unionist parties an instrument of their own to resist EU laws which would otherwise pull Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK.

On the face of it, then, the brake appears to be a genuine concession from the EU. And yet the reaction of many leading Brexiteers and Remainers has been to dismiss its actual importance. A consensus seems to have formed among both supporters and opponents of Brexit that the brake does not amount to all that much because it is subject to a number of different caveats and controls, which mean that if it is ever used the whole process is likely to get bogged down in tedious diplomacy with the EU, external arbitration and even, potentially, a UK government override.

Depending on who you speak to in Belfast, though, a strikingly different story emerges. Yes, there are many here who remain deeply sceptical of Sunak’s agreement — and understandably so given what happened before. And it is true that the brake is not all-powerful. But from the perspective of nationalist parties, the Alliance, or, indeed, the Irish government, the Stormont Brake looks less anything but a powerless sop to unionism. If anything, the brake looks too powerful, the bar for using it too low — and with potentially far-reaching consequences.

To understand why, one has to dig into the details a little further. In the UK Government’s command paper, Sunak is offering to go much further than the brake itself. He is proposing a guarantee that the UK Government will use its veto after a petition of concern unless cross-community consent is found not to. The effect of this, of course, is that unionism would get a kind of double veto — or, at least, the power to press a brake on new EU laws and the power to then lock that brake in place. 

The effect of this double guarantee is to increase the likelihood that the UK government will veto EU laws from applying in Northern Ireland. This in turn increases the risk of divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic with potentially retaliatory measures from the EU. 

From unionism’s perspective, this isn’t the primary concern. But for Irish nationalists it is a problem, because the brake and lock are not much use to them. The non-sectarian Alliance party is furious with the proposals, correctly observing that the brake and lock system means unionism’s votes in Stormont will be more powerful than theirs. In Belfast yesterday they made their view clear to officials. In time, then, the criticism of the new Stormont Brake may not be that it is too weak, but too strong.

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.