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Everything You Need To Know About The Northern Ireland Protocol, And Why Government Already Wants It Changed

Everything You Need To Know About The Northern Ireland Protocol, And Why Government Already Wants It Changed
5 min read

Michael Gove is today meeting counterparts from the European Union to suggest ways of improving how the Northern Ireland protocol, which took months to negotiate, works in practice.

The Northern Ireland Protocol got underway just five weeks ago, but already the government wants it to be changed.

Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, led by Arlene Foster, on Tuesday called for it be scrapped altogether.

The conundrum of how to deliver Brexit without creating a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland defined negotiations between the UK and EU for years.

Both sides agreed that erecting infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would threaten the island’s fragile peace agreement and had to be avoided at all costs.

The solution, agreed in October 2019 after a meeting between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the then Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, was the Northern Ireland Protocol. It was signed off as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The Protocol, which took effect at the end of the Brexit transition period, resulted in fundamental changes to Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the UK.

Unlike Great Britain, which left the single market and customs union on New Year’s Eve, Northern Ireland is still wedded to EU rules: it is in the European single market for goods and is continuing to follow the bloc’s customs rules.

This new arrangement allows the continuation of frictionless trade across the island of Ireland but has created an economic border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which wasn’t there previously.

What do these new arrangements mean in practice?

Since January 1, businesses big and small, across different sectors, moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland across the Irish Sea, have had to fill in lots of new paperwork.

This is because they are effectively sending goods into the EU’s single market and as a result, need to adhere the bloc’s stringent rules and regulations.

For example, businesses sending food and products of animal origin, which include items like milk and eggs, now must complete a range of forms, as the EU has very strict rules when it comes to hygiene.

The UK and EU agreed a handful of grace periods in order to help businesses adapt to these new rules over time.

This was in recognition of the reality that the changes were significant and traders would not be able to adapt to them overnight. The details of the Northern Ireland Protocol were finalized just days before they came into effect, giving businesses already dealing with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic barely any time to prepare.

These grace periods included a three-month waiver on Export Health Certificates that supermarkets need to move food and animal products across the Irish Sea. The EU and UK also delayed customs declarations on parcels until April 1 and agreed to postpone the outright ban on UK chilled meat exports to the EU — or the "sausage ban" — by six months.

So what are the problems?

The thing is: despite these grace periods, businesses are still struggling to adapt to the scale of red tape and paperwork.

Social media has been awash with pictures of empty supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland.

This is largely due to issues facing “groupage,” when lorries try to transport goods from different businesses and for different customers together in one load. The strict new rules on food and animal products mean that the goods in these mixed loads all have to be checked, creating lengthy delays which in some cases have lasted not just hours, but days.

But it’s not just food: the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol manifests in a range of obscure, but nonetheless costly, ways. For example, some JCB diggers heading to Northern Ireland from Great Britain have been barred entry due to EU rules over soil. The bloc’s strict soil rules have also forced some British plant businesses to stop selling to customers in Northern Ireland.

Examples of disruption are ubiqitious and many business owners are warning that they could collapse unless something is done.

What can be done about it?

Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has written to his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic, asking for the grace periods that were due to expire in the next few weeks and months, to be extended until January 2023. They will discuss the proposals over a video call later today.

This ask represents a significant shift in government tone and policy on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Gove yesterday told MPs that the issues facing businesses were not “teething problems,” as Johnson insisted last month, but “significant issues which bear on the lives of people in Northern Ireland, which do need to be resolved".

The DUP, which opposes any sort of border down the Irish Sea marking it as distinct from the rest of the UK, last night called for the Protocol to be binned and has launched a campaign for pressuring the Westminster government into doing so.

However, while the government has said it would be prepared to terminate the Protocol by a clause invoking Article 16, this is very much the nuclear option and would lead to a major diplomatic row. It is not clear what would replace the new arrangements if they were scrapped.

An UK-EU agreement to extend the grace periods and look at long-term solutions for making the new arrangements work is a more likely outcome.

Didn’t the EU invoke Article 16 last week?

Yes – and that added another layer of difficulty to this already-difficult issue.

On Friday, the European Commission took the drastic step of invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, before quickly backtracking after a furious reaction from all sides of the UK political spectrum, as well as the Irish government.

They did this in order to potentially restrict exports of coronavirus vaccines from the EU to the UK via the Northern Ireland. Remember: the Protocol allows for the unfettered movement of goods, including medicines, from the EU into Northern Ireland.

The bloc is under huge pressure to ramp up its continent-wide vaccine rollout amid shortages in member states and countries like the UK racing ahead.

Gove yesterday said that the move “eroded” trust, and EU figures have since admitted that invoking Article 16 was a mistake.

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