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Legislation to simplify crucial Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland and reaffirm its position as part of the UK was approved by MPs in Westminster on Thursday, paving the way to end two years of political paralysis in the region.
The government had drawn up the changes — outlined in a 76-page Command Paper called “Safeguarding the Union” — together with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party to address its objections to a customs border in the Irish Sea that it said inhibited trade with the British mainland and undermined the region’s place in the UK.
The vote in the House of Commons will allow Northern Ireland’s Stormont power-sharing executive to reconvene as early as this weekend. This will end a nearly two-year hiatus triggered by bitter unionist divisions over the trade border in the Irish Sea created by the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU.
Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in Brussels on Thursday that the EU had some questions about the deal but added that nobody at this stage had raised “any red flags or anything that gives us major concern”.
After the vote, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson signalled he would back a recall of Stormont on Saturday ending a near two-year boycott by his party.
The resumption of the power-sharing executive will be a historic moment. Michelle O’Neill will become the first pro-Irish unity nationalist first minister in a region partitioned from the rest of the island more than a century ago for the then protestant unionist majority.
O’Neill, who is deputy leader of Sinn Féin, which is now the largest party on both sides of the Irish border, has vowed to be a “first minister for all”.
Under the power-sharing agreement, created by the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that ended three decades of conflict in the region, the post of deputy first minister, which has equal legal status, will now go to the DUP, after the region’s largest unionist party came second in the last elections.
Nevertheless, O’Neill’s appointment remains a symbolic blow to hardline unionists. Some of them remain unconvinced by this week’s deal. DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he did not support it and warned that key details still needed to be finalised.
Under last year’s Windsor framework, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak secured key changes to the original Brexit trade rules in agreement with the EU. He said Northern Ireland would enjoy privileged access to the EU’s single market, making it the “world’s most exciting economic zone”.
But the DUP — which objected to customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain and staying in the region — held out for more. As it maintained its boycott of Stormont during the negotiations with British ministers, Northern Ireland’s public finances sank deep into the red, hitting public services and triggering swept by strikes.
The financial pressures will be eased by Stormont’s return, which will unlock a £3.3bn financial rescue package from the UK government. But there were more strikes this week as workers pressed for immediate pay rises.
The two pieces of secondary legislation passed by MPs on Thursday will guarantee unfettered trade access for goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland and validate the region’s status as part of the UK.
Donaldson said the measures to ease customs checks would deliver real change.
But the reaffirmation of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK “is lots of unionist words that change nothing”, said one former senior UK official. By law, Northern Ireland will remain a part of the UK until a majority of the region’s population decides otherwise — something that polls show remains a distant prospect.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said this week in Belfast that conversations about a “new Ireland” were gaining traction and Irish reunification was “within touching distance”.
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