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All You Need To Know About The Northern Ireland Protocol And Why The UK And EU Are Rowing Over It

All You Need To Know About The Northern Ireland Protocol And Why The UK And EU Are Rowing Over It
7 min read

Well over two years since the UK left the European Union, and nearly six years since the in-out referendum of June 2016, the government and EU are at loggerheads and Brexit is back in the headlines once again.

The source of the latest tension, as it has been for a number of months, is the Northern Ireland Protocol.

An announcement on Tuesday by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss means Brexit and the protocol are likely to dominate the bulletins for many more weeks to come, and potentially into the Autumn. 

Here's everything you need to know about the Northern Ireland Protocol and why it came about, the Truss legislation announcement and what it means, and what could happen next in the Brexit saga.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

Northern Ireland was one of – if not the most – tricky issue in Brexit negotiations because it is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with the EU. This was the case both for Boris Johnson and his predecessor, Theresa May.

The dilemma facing the government was how to deliver Brexit while avoiding the return of a contentious hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which both the UK and EU agreed would threaten Northern Ireland's stability and the relative peace secured by the Good Friday Agreement. The 1998 peace deal brought an end to decades of civil conflict in the region known as The Troubles.

After months of intense negotiations, the two sides eventually agreed a way of doing this.

They agreed to keep Northern Ireland aligned with the EU's trading rules, avoiding the need for highly-controversial checks on goods moving to and from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.

Johnson celebrated the agreement as a major negotiating victory for the UK and it was part of the "oven-ready" Brexit deal that formed the basis of his successful 2019 general campaign.

The Northern Ireland Protocol then came into effect at the beginning of 2021.

So what's the problem?

The protocol achieved its core objective of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

However, what it did was create a new border elsewhere in the UK: between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea. That's because by aligning with EU rules, Northern Ireland continued following the bloc's trading regulations after Brexit, while the rest of the UK did not.

In practice, this new arrangement resulted in goods being moved across the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland having checks carried out on them. These checks are particularly stringent in the case of food, as the EU has very strict rules when it comes to hygiene.

The government argues these new barriers are excessive and are creating undue levels of cost and disruption to British businesses that want to send their products to customers in Northern Ireland.

According to government data, over 200 retailers based in Britain have stopped serving Northern Ireland as a result of the new red tape, and trade across the Irish Sea has fallen significantly.

To add to the complication, earlier this year Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) quit the government in Belfast over their opposition to the protocol and is refusing to form a government until it feels the problems are properly addressed by the UK government. 

The DUP, led by Jeffrey Donaldson MP, argues the protocol is undermining Northern Ireland's place in the UK and doesn't have support of large parts of the unionist community in the region.

Have the two sides tried to sort this out?

Yes.

The EU, whose negotiating team is led by European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, agreed that the Northern Ireland Protocol had unintended consequences and ought to be revised.

However, up to now the two sides have failed to reach an agreement on what that should look like, despite many, many months of talks between Sefcovic and Truss as well as her predecessor, Lord Frost.

This has occasionally led to diplomatic rows between the UK and EU, with London accusing Brussels of being inflexible and Brussels accusing London of making unrealistic demands.

A number of grace periods and easements have been put in place to mitigate the impact of the new checks, but the UK says they do not go far enough and that changes must be permanent.

What is the UK asking for?

In a nutshell, the government wants to dramatically reduce the amount of checks that are carried out on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain that are clearly staying in Northern Ireland should not require checks as they pose no threat to the EU's Single Market, ministers argue.

As things stand, goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain as a default are treated as if they are heading for the Republic of Ireland, meaning they are subject to EU paperwork.

The UK also wants to no longer have the European Court of Justice oversee the Northern Ireland Protocol, though the desire for this term is not as strong among the businesses affected by the treaty.

What did Truss announce in the Commons?

Frustrated with what the UK has characterised as the EU's refusal to budge in talks, and after weeks of speculation about how it will respond, the government has decided to take matters into its own hands.

Truss has now confirmed that in the coming weeks the government will table legislation designed to allow the UK to unilaterally make changes to the protocol and reduce the disruption it has caused. 

The Bill, which is set to begin its passage through parliament before MPs leave Westminster in late July for summer recess, will seek to remove checks on goods that are clearly staying in Northern Ireland, and do away with the ECJ oversight. It would also remove the EU's involvement in how tax can be spent in the region. We are still waiting for technical details of how it'll all work in practice.  

How did that go down?

Not great. 

The EU is firmly against the UK taking unilateral action and warns that it would break international law. It has urged the government to step back from the brink and stick with the talks instead.

Sefcovic today warned that the EU would respond with all measures at its disposal if the UK goes ahead with the plan. This could include trade retaliation, which Johnson has been warned will worsen the ongoing cost-of-living crisis by further driving up the price of everyday items.

The government received criticism from its own side, too.

Simon Hoare, the Tory MP who chairs the Northern Ireland Select Committee, stood up in the House of Commons to challenge Truss' claim that the plan wouldn't break international law.

"Respect for the rule of law runs deep in our Tory veins and I find it extraordinary that a Tory government needs to be reminded of that," Hoare said.

The DUP, whose view is crucial to the government strategy, welcomed the announcement this afternoon but said it would not agree to form a government in Stormont until the UK government took action on the Northern Ireland Protocol by actually implementing the legislation.

What happens next?

In reality, while Truss has now confirmed the plan to table legislation, it will take a number of months before it actually becomes law. That's not least because the House of Lords is expected to tear it to bits, while back in the House of Commons a number of Tory MPs are thought to be uneasy with it.

In the meantime, talks between the UK and EU are set to continue into the summer. Both sides have made it clear that a negotiated outcome is still very much their preference.

The key deadline is 28 October. If the DUP is to agree to form a government with Sinn Fein, the nationalist party that won this month's election, then it must happen by that date. If not, Brandon Lewis, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, will be obliged to call another election in the region. 

That means we can expect negotiations between Truss and Sefcovic to continue into the summer and beyond, and potentially another Brexit cliff edge in the run-up to Halloween.

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