Northern Ireland Protocol: Why Is Everyone Talking About This Again?

It looks like this controversial part of the Brexit arrangements is about to return the mainstream.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss, the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson and the EU's Maros Šefčovič
Foreign secretary Liz Truss, the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson and the EU's Maros Šefčovič

The Northern Ireland protocol has returned, and yet again, it is threatening the relationship between the UK and the EU.

Both sides are locking horns over how to resolve this crisis which could see the whole Brexit agreement torn up and trade war potentially erupting.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Northern Ireland protocol?

The protocol was proposed as the solution to the Brexit stalemate between the EU and the UK back in 2019.

Just months into his time in Downing Street, Boris Johnson signed off on it. It seemed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, therefore avoiding a revival of any past tensions which have cropped between the two countries.

But, it means Northern Ireland now, like the Republic of Ireland, has to follow the EU’s trade rules so there’s no border checks when goods travel around the island of Ireland.

As Northern Ireland technically left the EU along with the rest of the UK but still follows EU’s single market rules, border checks had to be introduced in the Irish Sea instead.

Anything travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland has to be checked as though coming from a third country.

Why is everyone talking about it again now?

Unionists have repeatedly said that the protocol separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and disrupts trade ever since it was introduced.

Their arguments have come to a head after the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, which saw the main unionist party lose their majority for the first time since the Assembly was established.

The DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) is currently refusing to nominate someone to be the deputy first minister. The Northern Ireland executive cannot operate without this role.

The DUP claim, until the protocol is addressed, it will not only paralyse the executive but the whole assembly.

The party could do this by refusing to back the nomination of an assembly speaker on Friday, which would have enabled the legislative body could operate without an executive.

What has the UK said?

Foreign secretary Liz Truss said on Tuesday night that the government was going to reject the EU’s recent suggestions about how to fix the problem.

She said: “The current EU proposals fail to properly address the real issues affecting Northern Ireland and in some cases would take us backward.”

The senior minister suggested that the bloc’s reforms would see various chilled meats from Britain needing a vet certificate to enter Northern Ireland, and foods outside of the EU no longer available in the country.

She explained: “Our preference has always been for a negotiated solution but will not shy away from taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found.”

What has the UK proposed?

The UK could set up new legislation to unilaterally scrap parts of the Brexit agreement signed in 2020, although Brussels says this would be a breach of the UK’s obligations.

According to The Times, this could mean scrapping checks on goods going from Britain to Northern Ireland, simultaneously ending the EU’s Court of Justice role in the country and allow businesses to stop following the bloc’s trade regulations.

Truss has promoted a new arrangements which would include a green and red division, along with a bespoke data-sharing system, to reduce the trade barriers down the Irish Sea.

A Whitehall source told POLITICO’s Playbook: “What is most disappointing here is Brussels truly holds some remarkable brilliant thinkers and yet the negotiations over the past year have shown the EU still clearly misunderstands what is practically happening in Northern Ireland and the structural issues with the protocol.”

How has the EU responded?

The EU is refusing to back down or renegotiate the protocol.

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said: “The protocol, as a cornerstone of the withdrawal agreement, is an international agreement. Its renegotiation is not an option. The European Union is united in this position.”

This was echoed by the German chancellor Olaf Scholz who said: “No one should unilaterally cancel, break or in any way attack the settlement we have agreed together.”

Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheal Martin has also admitted that the protocol issues were “very serious”.

However, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Cross would be happy to cancel the entire Brexit deal, claiming he could not see any “other solution”.

So...What happens next?

Truss met Šefčovič on Thursday in a bid to resolve the tensions, but they were not able to find a solution.

She told the EU representative that the Commissions bore a responsibility to show more pragmatism and ensure the protocol delivers on its original objectives.

According to the Foreign Office’s breakdown of their meeting, Šefčovič simply said there was “no room to expand” the EU negotiating mandate or introduce new proposals to reduce the trade friction – to which Truss replied that as a “responsible government we would have no choice but to act”.

The foreign secretary is likely to now be considering announcing the radical bill (which would unilaterally scrap parts of the protocol) next Tuesday, even if the EU has not acted by then.

Levelling up secretary Michael Gove warned on Wednesday that “no option is off the table” when it comes to fixing the problems.

Meanwhile, the EU is unlikely to renegotiate the protocol to secure the changes the UK is looking for.


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