The UK government has announced plans to pass legislation that will overrule the Northern Ireland Brexit deal.
Since its implementation at the start of 2021, the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was agreed with the European Union (EU) in 2019, has been a subject of contention.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol, and how does it work?
After the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union in 2016, Northern Ireland required special arrangements. This is because it is the only part of the UK with a land border with an EU country, Ireland.
Before Brexit, transporting products across this border was simple because both sides followed the same EU trade laws. There were no checks or papers required.
Because the EU has tight food standards and needs border checks when certain items, such as milk and eggs, come from non-EU nations, a new approach was required after Brexit.
The border is also a touchy subject because of Northern Ireland’s tumultuous political history. Irish believed that surveillance cameras or border checkpoints would cause unrest.
Protecting the 1998 Northern Ireland peace pact, known as the Good Friday Agreement, was a top priority for the UK and the EU. As a result, as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, both parties signed the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is now part of international law.
Principles of the NI Protocol
The EU and the UK agreed on a Northern Ireland Protocol during the discussions. No additional inspections on goods crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be implemented (ROI).
The protocol’s goals are to:
- Prevent a sharp distinction between NI and ROI
- Ensure that the EU’s single market for goods remains intact.
- Ensure that NI goods have unrestricted access to the UK market and that NI goods are included in free trade agreements between the UK and third nations.
NI has effectively remained in the EU’s single market for goods due to the protocol (England, Scotland, and Wales have left the EU’s single market for goods).
This permits goods to flow freely from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU, just as they did when the UK was a member of the EU, without customs checks, tariffs, or extra paperwork.
The EU’s customs and Agri-food regulations will continue to apply to goods arriving in Northern Ireland.
What is the protocol’s mechanism?
Instead of inspecting products at the Irish border, the agreement stipulated that all inspections and document checks be carried out between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom (England, Scotland and Wales). These take place in the ports of Northern Ireland.
EU-UK decided that Northern Ireland would continue to adhere to EU product standards.
What is the source of the Protocol’s opposition?
Unionist parties want Northern Ireland to be a part of the United Kingdom. They claim that establishing an adequate border across the Irish Sea jeopardizes Northern Ireland’s status as a member of the United Kingdom.
The Democratic Unionists (DUP), Northern Ireland’s main unionist party, have refused to participate in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government unless its concerns are addressed.
Despite finishing second in May’s elections to Sinn Fein, a nationalist party that respects the Protocol, the DUP cannot establish a new Northern Ireland administration without its assistance.
Sinn Fein claims that the unionists believe they can “hold society to ransom.”
What does the British government propose?
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told MPs that the Protocol had generated issues that the government had not anticipated when the accord was struck.
Ms Truss claimed that the Protocol had weakened the Good Friday Agreement and created extra complexity for businesses transporting products between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.
According to her, the planned Northern Ireland Protocol Bill would require British goods destined for sale in Northern Ireland to fulfil only British standards, not EU norms.
The foreign secretary went on to say that the government had no choice but to intervene due to the urgency of the situation but that The UK Government still preferred a negotiated settlement.
On the other hand, opposition lawmakers have accused the government of acting foolishly.
What is the EU’s position?
The EU stated it would “need to respond with all measures at its disposal” to the Foreign Secretary’s statement.
It has previously stated that renegotiating the text of the Northern Ireland Protocol is not an option and that any unilateral move by the UK would have ramifications.
Last October, the EU presented its protocol suggestions, which included:
- a reduction of 80% in the number of checks on food products arriving in Northern Ireland and a half of paperwork
- Enacting legislation to facilitate continued pharmaceutical commerce between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland
- Loosening rules so that cold products like sausages can still be shipped across the Irish Sea
The EU demanded further protections to prevent British products from entering the Republic of Ireland.
The United Kingdom turned down the offer, claiming it would “worsen current commercial arrangements.”