The government has been trying to get a bill though Parliament that would rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol and renege on the Brexit deal the government signed with the EU. The Bill remains on the table and is now in the Lords, where it will face significant obstacles over the coming months.
However, following an intervention from the US, there was a major – and welcome change of tone from the UK government. The government has now – finally – entered negotiations, so far only at official level, based on the EU’s longstanding offer to significantly amend the way the Protocol works.
A softer Brexit, with the UK rejoining the single market and the customs union, would provide a huge boost to the UK’s ailing economy and mean there was no longer any need for the Protocol.
But the government insists on the hardest of hard Brexits. The Protocol is the only way to combine that with protecting the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and avoiding a land border in Ireland.
The government’s welcome decision to tone down, at least temporarily, its empty threats and to seek negotiation comes too late to avoid further damage to the UK’s reputation, tarnished by Brexit itself and the government’s confrontational attitude to Europe.
There is no doubt that the Protocol’s operation has been problematic for some businesses in Northern Ireland and for some in the rest of the UK who trade in the Northern Irish market. It is also clear that, without changes, the end of the ‘grace periods’ during which checks have not been fully implemented could cause significant further barriers to trade.
But the EU has offered to address these issues. Furthermore, there is democratic support for the Protocol. 53 of 90 elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly support it. Under the Withdrawal Agreement and UK implementing rules, the assembly will vote every four years, first in December 2024, on whether the Protocol should be maintained.
A recent poll by Queens University Belfast showed that 50% of Northern Irish voters currently believe the Assembly should vote in favour of maintaining the Protocol, with 41% opposed. 71% prefer a negotiated solution and 59% are opposed to unilateral action by the UK government.
As well as being dishonourable, dangerous and anti-democratic, ripping up the Protocol would be economically disastrous. It would mean a hugely damaging trade war with the EU, when the cost of living is already out of control. It would risk Northern Ireland’s place in the EU single market, which is bringing investment and jobs.
Ripping up the Protocol would mean even higher prices, and an even bigger cost-of-living crisis across the UK, and would risk more turmoil in Northern Ireland. It is the last thing the UK needs in these difficult times. The government should not only suspend, but remove definitively, its threat to behave like a rogue state by flagrantly breaking international law.
The Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 in effect removed the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That border had been a highly contentious issue at the centre of the ‘Troubles’ that had led to thousands of deaths and injuries over several decades.
But hard Brexit has removed the UK from the EU’s single market and customs union. That means goods passing from the UK into the Republic of Ireland – still part of the EU - now need to be checked for compliance with EU regulations and with customs requirements.
So a way had to be found for those checks to happen in a way compatible with the Good Friday Agreement, in other words without reinstating the land border.
The UK government and the EU therefore agreed the Protocol, under which customs and regulatory checks take place on goods moving from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland. Those goods can then move freely, without further checks, from Northern Ireland into the EU’s single market. This allows Northern Ireland to remain in the single market, which is the likely reason why it has been growing faster than other parts of the UK.
However, the Democratic Unionist Party fiercely opposes the Protocol and has said it will not return to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive unless and until the Protocol is overridden. Given that the Assembly has not functioned since the last elections in May 2022, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris has said he will call new elections as he is legally required to do, though no date has been fixed and many experts predict that new elections would not break the impasse.