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Northern Ireland remains a pawn in the Brexit negotiations

A road sign welcoming into Northern Ireland is seen on the Irish Border road linking Belfast to Dublin in Northern Ireland | PA Images

4 min read

Urgent action is required by all parties in the Brexit negotiations to address the tensions at the heart of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland

The agreement of the revised Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in October 2019 paved the way for the UK to leave the EU on 31 January 2020. Yet the months since then have been characterised by uncertainty. On the one hand, the UK Government has been unable to explain precisely or consistently what it agreed with the EU. On the other, the EU’s insistence that ‘the rules are the rules’ has left Northern Ireland businesses fearing that there will be no flexibility to apply the Protocol proportionately. This has led to a diminution of trust between the two sides, with the upshot that Northern Ireland has felt like “a pawn in the game”.

Two weeks ago, the Government published a Command Paper to explain its approach to the Protocol. But while it addresses the right areas, it’s almost all in the future tense and a much higher level of detail is required. It underlines how many issues remain to be resolved between the UK and the EU, and how much work still needs to be done before the Protocol becomes operational on 1 January 2021. This, compounded by the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, is a potent threat to economic prosperity and political stability in Northern Ireland.

The House of Lords European Union Committee has today published a detailed and comprehensive report on The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. It focuses in particular on the tension at its heart. Article 4 states that Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the UK, and is reinforced by Article 6, which states that nothing in the Protocol shall prevent the UK from ensuring unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to other parts of the UK. But these are off-set by Article 5, which applies the entirety of EU customs legislation, including the Union Customs Code, to Northern Ireland, and which retains a single regulatory zone for goods on the island of Ireland, in order to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. 

This requires the imposition of new customs processes and regulatory checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Other than in relation to sanitary and phytosanitary processes, which it acknowledges will be intensified, the Government argues that no new bespoke customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland will be required. Yet it fails adequately to explain how these new processes will be undertaken. Neither has the Government adequately addressed the continued uncertainty over whether Northern Ireland businesses will be required to complete exit summary declarations on goods moving to Great Britain. 

The UK-EU Joint Committee is tasked with important decisions on the operation of the Protocol, and both sides need to approach these discussions in a constructive manner. The UK needs to explain how the exemptions it proposes are compatible with the terms and aims of the Protocol. The EU needs to allow the Protocol to be applied in a proportionate manner, so as not to damage the Northern Ireland economy. From Northern Ireland’s perspective, it is also highly desirable that a comprehensive UK-EU Free Trade Agreement should be concluded by the end of 2020, in order to mitigate these checks and processes.

For Northern Ireland, the Protocol represents what one witness called a “seismic change”, and very little time is left before it becomes operational. More than ever, it is incumbent on all parties, including the UK Government, the EU, the Irish government, and the political parties in Northern Ireland, after the divisions of the past four years, to work in a common endeavour to prioritise and urgently address the interests, stability and prosperity of the people and communities of Northern Ireland. Anything less would diminish the efforts of all those who have worked so hard for peace and good relations across these islands. 


The Earl of Kinnoull is a non-affiliated peer and chair of the Lords European Union Committee

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