LONDON — The United Kingdom and the European Union have signed a new agreement intended to solve one of the thorniest challenges created by Brexit: a long-term resolution for the trading status of Northern Ireland.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reached a deal with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday that will allow goods to enter Northern Ireland freely from other parts of the U.K.

It comes more than six years after British voters chose to leave the EU and three years since the two finally broke up in 2020.

One reason the Brexit process dragged on for so many years was the inability of all sides to address a double dilemma: How to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland that might become a flashpoint given the region's troubled history, and how to ensure Northern Ireland was not somehow treated separately from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Here's how the deal, dubbed the "Windsor Framework" — a change to the original Northern Ireland Protocol — attempts to solve those issues.

It revises trade rules

Then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government opted to let the EU grant Northern Ireland a rather unique status, meaning that goods produced elsewhere in the U.K. — England, Wales or Scotland — would need to be inspected by officials before they could enter Northern Ireland.

Leaders were trying to avoid creating a hard border between Northern Ireland, which was leaving the EU, and neighboring EU-member state Ireland. But their solution also created a fresh set of challenges.

People in Northern Ireland who strongly want to remain part of the U.K. saw this as an affront. One of the main political parties there, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has consequently refused to participate in local government ever since. It has helped reignite some tensions between different communities.

At the same time, some members of the Conservative Party also resented the idea that even after Brexit — with its slogan to "take back control" of Britain — EU bureaucrats would continue to have the power to intervene in trade flows within the United Kingdom.

The new plan involves the introduction of red and green lanes for goods arriving in Northern Ireland from other parts of the U.K.: green for British products, including medication, that are staying in Northern Ireland; red for those goods and products that will be sold on to the Republic of Ireland, thus entering the EU.

Business groups welcomed Monday's changes.

It might break the deadlock in Northern Ireland's politics

Sunak has called this a "decisive breakthrough" and says that the U.K. Parliament will get a vote on the plan at the "appropriate" moment. But several lawmakers who opposed the previous agreement said they want some time to digest the new details before passing judgment.

In a parliamentary debate that followed the deal's announcement, one of Sunak's predecessors, Theresa May, who struggled to solve the Northern Ireland dilemma and ultimately failed to win lawmakers' approval for a Brexit deal, said the newly agreed measures will "make a huge difference."

Meanwhile, Sunak's chief political opponent, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, said he would support the new deal, which would boost Britain's international standing and hopefully put an end to the country's "endless disputes" with its neighbors.

Sunak has also promised that the local legislature in Northern Ireland, known as the Stormont Assembly, will have the ability to diverge from European Union laws, in a way that was difficult under the previous deal.

The DUP has, over the past two years, refused to take part in the power sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, essentially grinding local governance to a halt, and thus potentiality endangering the 1998 Northern Ireland peace agreement.

Sunak will be hoping this breaks the gridlock and calms some of the tensions that the entire Brexit process has reawakened in the region — only last week gunmen tried to kill a senior police officer in Northern Ireland.

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More than six years after a majority of British voters chose to leave the European Union and more than two years since that divorce process was finalized, there is now a resolution to one of the thorniest parts of that Brexit deal. Today the U.K. and the European Union signed an agreement on trade in and out of Northern Ireland. London-based journalist Willem Marx joins us now to explain. Hey, Willem.


CHANG: So - OK. Brexit happened more than two years ago. So what's been the trading situation up until now, and why has it been so problematic?

MARX: Well, that Brexit deal was signed more than two years ago under Boris Johnson. There was this mechanism called the Northern Ireland Protocol designed to address a fiendishly complicated trade problem that Brexit created. You see; anywhere that goods enter the European Union - since it defines itself as a single market - they're checked to ensure they meet certain standards on safety or hygiene, that kind of thing. And since a physical border with the Republic of Ireland was seen as a potential flashpoint, given the region's very troubled 20th century history, the Europeans insisted that those goods manufactured or produced elsewhere in the U.K. should, instead, be checked even before they arrived in Northern Ireland. That solution angered some people in Northern Ireland, who didn't like the idea they were being separated from the rest of the U.K., and it also annoyed some lawmakers in British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Conservative Party, who felt it left European Union officials with a role in internal U.K. trade flows.

CHANG: OK. So how does this new deal solve that problem?

MARX: Well, it will alter the way the European Union inspects products and goods that pass into Northern Ireland from other parts of the United Kingdom. That's England, Wales, Scotland. Until now, all those checks created a paperwork nightmare for wholesalers and retailers in Northern Ireland and, indeed, for manufacturers and farmers in other parts of the U.K. But British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, at a press conference this afternoon, insisted the new arrangements would create a much smoother and less bureaucratic movement of goods into Northern Ireland by using these green and red lanes. Green would be for British products, including medication that are staying in Northern Ireland, while red would be for goods and products that are going to get sold on to the Republic of Ireland, essentially thus entering the EU.

CHANG: Wow. This sounds majorly complicated. I understand that that is designed to take care of the trade difficulties, but what about the politics around all of this? Like, can this deal solve the political piece of this?

MARX: Well, one of the big challenges, you know, since that original plan, including that Northern Ireland Protocol was implemented at the start of 2021, is that one of the big political parties in Northern Ireland's rather small local parliament really didn't like the deal. You know, that party, the Democratic Unionist, essentially exists to try and ensure that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. They thought the protocol was like a wedge that was being driven between them and the rest of the U.K. They voted against Boris Johnson's Brexit deal repeatedly, and it's one of the reasons the Brexit process dragged on so long. And then after it passed, they also refused to take part in the local government of Northern Ireland, which has basically meant there's been no major local decisions taken there for two years, let alone new local legislation introduced. And so Sunak's hoping very much, though, they'll now be happy with this new plan once they see the details and that will then provide a turning point for politics in Northern Ireland.

CHANG: And should we expect that to happen soon?

MARX: Well, he's promised that the local legislature in Northern Ireland, known as the Stormont Assembly, will have the ability to diverge from European Union laws in a way that was difficult under the previous deal. The details are out, and he's saying that the U.K. Parliament will get a vote on this new deal when the time is, quote, "appropriate." It will be crucial to see how those Democratic Unionists - that Northern Irish political party - react. The entire Brexit process has really reawakened some pretty big tensions in the region. Only last week, gunmen tried to kill a senior police officer in Northern Ireland. And so Sunak and others in his Cabinet are hoping today's announcement will go some way to settling some of those more inflammatory issues and, indeed, easing some of those tensions between different communities there.

CHANG: That is Willem Marx in London. Thank you, Willem.

MARX: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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