Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has warned the EU that the UK Government will take action on the Northern Ireland Protocol if negotiators in Brussels do not show sufficient flexibility. Days after historic Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, the post-Brexit arrangements for the region are once again threatening to cause a serious clash between the UK and the EU.
Here’s what you need to know about the Northern Ireland Protocol.
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?
Ms Truss will hold crunch talks with the vice-president of the European Commission on Thursday May 12th, as ministers consider whether to override parts of the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.
Attorney General Suella Braverman is said to have approved the scrapping of swathes of the agreement, giving Prime Minister Boris Johnson legal cover to make the move, despite warnings from US president Joe Biden and European leaders not to single-handedly meddle with the terms.
Officials working for Ms Truss are drawing up draft legislation to unilaterally remove the need for checks on all goods being sent from Britain for use in Northern Ireland. The PA news agency was told that Ms Truss is poised to take further action in coming weeks if negotiations with the EU continue to stall.
The proposed law 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.
Additional reporting by PA.