On Monday JUne 13th, the UK Government announced legislation aiming to fix parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, making “the changes necessary to restore stability and ensure the delicate balance of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is protected”, according to a statement from the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office.
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, as it’s called, will allow the Government to address the practical problems the Protocol has created in Northern Ireland in four key areas: burdensome customs processes, inflexible regulation, tax and spend discrepancies, and democratic governance issues.
As seen over the past months and even years, these problems include disruption and diversion of trade and significant costs and bureaucracy for business. They are undermining all three strands of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and have led to discontent between Irish, Northern Irish, and Westminster departments. It’s reported that ministers believe that the serious situation in Northern Ireland means they cannot afford to delay.
Boris Johnson has insisted the plan to effectively override parts of the Brexit deal with Brussels was "not a big deal" as he was warned the move would "deeply damage" relations with the European Union and Ireland.
The Bill will be introduced in Parliament today amid controversy over whether the legislation will break international law. Indeed, Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the plan would "ratchet up" tension and breach the UK's international commitments.
But Mr Johnson insisted the legislation would introduce "relatively simple" bureaucratic changes and warned it would be a "gross overreaction" if Brussels sought to retaliate by triggering a trade war. But what actually is the Northern Ireland Protocol and what impact could it have on the UK as a whole? Here’s what you need to know.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
An arrangement governing trade across the Irish Sea post-Brexit. Negotiated between the UK and EU as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, it was how both sides overcame the main log-jam in the Brexit divorce talks – the Irish land border.
To avoid disrupting cross-border trade and a return of checkpoints along the politically sensitive frontier, London and Brussels essentially agreed to move new regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea. That meant checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, rather than on goods moving north and south within the island of Ireland.
Products shipped from Northern Ireland to Great Britain are largely unaffected by the protocol. The red tape instead applies on movement in the other direction.
The protocol also sees Northern Ireland follow certain EU rules on state aid and VAT on goods. Due to the extension of a “grace period” on a number of protocol provisions, some arrangements are not yet fully in force.
The post-Brexit checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are fiercely opposed by unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland. They argue that the creation of an “Irish Sea border” poses a threat to the place of Northern Ireland in the UK.
The protocol has been the subject of fierce criticism by unionists, prompting rallies and protests across the region in recent months and it has also been challenged in court. However, not everyone in Northern Ireland opposes the protocol.
Businesses have taken issue with some of the fresh checks, but many also see a benefit in Northern Ireland having access to both UK and EU markets. Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party say that while the protocol is not perfect and can be tweaked, it is the best way to insulate Northern Ireland from the impact of Brexit.
What is Liz Truss proposing to change in the Northern Ireland Protocol?
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss held crunch talks with the vice-president of the European Commission on Thursday May 12th, when ministers considered whether to override parts of the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.
The legislation would allow businesses in Northern Ireland to disregard EU rules and regulations and remove the power of the European Court of Justice to rule on issues relating to the region. Crucially, it would in parts override the protocol agreed by Mr Johnson in 2019 and mean the UK had breached its obligations under the Brexit agreement, but it has been argued that the protocol will not be completely overridden. Instead, measures are being considered to ease the issues on the ground in Northern Ireland.
“This Bill will uphold the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and support political stability in Northern Ireland,” Ms Truss said in a statement. “It will end the untenable situation where people in Northern Ireland are treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom, protect the supremacy of our courts and our territorial integrity.
“This is a reasonable, practical solution to the problems facing Northern Ireland. It will safeguard the EU Single Market and ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. We are ready to deliver this through talks with the EU. But we can only make progress through negotiations if the EU are willing to change the Protocol itself – at the moment they aren’t. In the meantime the serious situation in Northern Ireland means we cannot afford to allow the situation to drift.
“As the government of the whole United Kingdom, it is our duty to take the necessary steps to preserve peace and stability.”
Additional reporting by PA.