Why we need a ‘Senedd brake’ to protect Welsh devolution
Liz Saville Roberts MP
At the end of February, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the new ‘Windsor Framework’ to ease the flow of post-Brexit trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Framework introduces a range of changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol – which retains Northern Ireland’s place in the European single market for goods, in order to maintain an open land border on the island of Ireland.
The changes to the Protocol include a new ‘green lane’ and a significantly reduced regulatory burden for goods moving from Great Britain and staying in Northern Ireland; new measures to ensure that food products, medicines and plants sold in Britain are also available in Northern Ireland; and a ‘Stormont brake’ on the application of new EU laws in Northern Ireland.
As has been pointed out by Sunak in his attempts to sell the deal, the Windsor Framework leaves Northern Ireland in an “unbelievably special position”, with privileged access to both the UK and EU markets. Given the economic harm that Brexit has caused in the rest of the UK, it is unsurprising that Northern Ireland’s unique market position has been widely welcomed by voters there, despite ongoing opposition from the Democratic Unionist Party.
Of course, this was precisely the position that the whole of the UK previously enjoyed. We in Wales can only look on aghast as Tory charlatans who touted Brexit as an economic opportunity for our community now rejoice in Northern Ireland’s continued access to the European market – the same market from which they ripped the rest of us.
Notwithstanding the DUP’s ongoing insistence on looking a gift-horse in the mouth, we in Plaid Cymru have welcomed the Windsor Framework as a basis on which to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland. But it raises a number of questions for Wales to which we have not yet had satisfactory answers. From the outset, we have been asking for clarity on the implications of the new ‘green lane’ for goods bound for Northern Ireland via Welsh ports. Before Brexit, around 30% of the goods moving through Holyhead Port were on their way to or from Northern Ireland. Since Brexit, trade volumes on this route have slumped.
We have yet to receive any precise details on whether and how the Windsor Framework will ease the follow of goods between Holyhead and Dublin. Such answers as we have received to questions around this to both the UK and Welsh Governments have been patchy and even contradictory. This speaks to the way in which Wales has consistently been an afterthought throughout the Brexit process. The scant regard given to Welsh ports is reflective of Wales’ wider marginalisation in a post-Brexit UK economy which will never work in our interests.
Mirroring the way in which Brexit was negotiated more generally, the Welsh Government had no involvement in the negotiation of the Windsor Framework. Unlike the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, neither the Senedd nor the Welsh Government have a protected role in the governance of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This is despite the impact that the Protocol has had in Wales, including to trade through our ports. The Windsor Framework does less than nothing to address this.
On 22 March, MPs in Westminster voted by a margin of 515 in favour to 29 against to implement the new ‘Stormont brake’ element of the Windsor Framework. The brake mechanism essentially means that a petition submitted by 30 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly from at least two parties can act to halt the application of new EU law to Northern Ireland.
The purpose, we are told, is to address the Northern Ireland Protocol’s ‘democratic deficit’ – by which Northern Ireland is subject to laws not made by its devolved legislature.
Suffice it to say that the same UK Government has shown absolutely no concern about any post-Brexit ‘democratic deficit’ for Wales. Quite the opposite. Whether in the over-reach of the Internal Market Act, or in allocating funding over the top of the heads of the Welsh Government through the so-called ‘Shared Prosperity’ Fund, subsequent Tory governments in Westminster have consistently shown their willingness to undermine devolved government Wales.
The Senedd recently voted to withhold its consent for the ill-conceived Retained EU Law Bill. As with so many other pieces of vital Brexit legislation, we expect the UK Government to ignore the will of Wales’s Parliament and carry on regardless. What is this if not a ‘democratic deficit’?
We need an effective ‘Senedd brake’ on UK Governments’ willingness to ride roughshod over our devolution settlement, and to protect Wales from the damaging effects of a hard Brexit to which our democratic institutions did not consent.
Ultimately, the most (and indeed, only) effective such brake is to be found in Welsh independence.
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