What are the concerns about the Northern Ireland Protocol?

At the G7 Summit held in Cornwell in the past days, one of the issues that was frequently mentioned among many world issues on the agenda was the Northern Ireland Protocol. During the Brexit negotiations, all sides agreed that protecting the Northern Ireland peace deal (the Good Friday agreement) was an absolute priority. What are the reservations arising from the Northern Ireland Protocol or the Good Friday Agreement?

The G7 (Group of Seven) is an organization of the world’s seven largest so-called advanced economies, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States). Leaders of these countries gathered in Cornwall for the G7 Summit between the dates 11 – 13 June.

This year’s G7 Summit agenda covered the topics of Covid recovery, including “a stronger global health system that can protect us all from future pandemics”, climate change and trade. Also, UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson held face to face talks with US President Joe Biden and Biden has expressed concern that a dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol – the Brexit deal that prevents checks along the Irish border – could threaten the peace process.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, which Biden mentioned, continues to be a topic between the UK, Ireland and the EU since Brexit. During the Brexit negotiations, all sides agreed that protecting the Northern Ireland peace deal (the Good Friday agreement) was an absolute priority. When the agreement was signed in 1998, one of the key issues was the need for an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. 

That was easy to settle because both countries were part of the European Union and shared the same EU rules on trade, so no checks were needed on goods traveling from one country to another. 

However, after the Brexit, the EU required many goods to be inspected when they arrive from non-EU countries, while some products aren’t allowed to enter at all. The EU and the UK had to come up with a new way of ensuing there were no border controls, this was why they negotiated and signed up to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The Good Friday Agreement is the peace deal between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, part of which means there is an open border between the two countries.

One of the priorities for the Brexit deal between the UK and EU was that the Good Friday Agreement remain intact. This has been complicated by Brexit, because the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is now a border between the UK and EU, and EU law requires certain good to be inspected when they arrive from non-EU countries.

Part of the Brexit trade deal called the Northern Ireland Protocol, officially came into force on 1 January, but with a six-month grace period, meaning it will start existing in practice from 1 July.

Goods that must be inspected include meat, milk, fish and eggs, and customs declarations must be filled out. If the two sides cannot come to an agreement, it could result in a ban on sausages, burgers and other chilled meats entering Northern Ireland from great Britain.

A new “regulatory” border

Under the protocol, even though Northern Ireland was no longer part of the EU, it would continue to follow many of its rules. This would enable lorries to continue driving across the land border without being inspected. Meanwhile, England, Scotland and Wales are no longer following those rules – leading to a new “regulatory” border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. New checks on goods now need to be carried out when they enter Northern Ireland from England, Scotland or Wales.

Inspections take place at Northern Ireland ports, and customs documents have to be filled in. This has prompted criticism that a new border has effectively been created in the Irish Sea. 

What problems have arisen?

The new system got off to a shaky start, with some disruption, new Brexit arrangements have caused disruption to fresh produce reaching supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland, at the beginning of the year. The EU said in early February that the control posts were not yet fully operational and some goods were entering Northern Ireland without being properly declared.

Photo: Reuters

As well as problems with trade, there were also political and security concerns. Checks were temporarily suspended at the beginning of February, over what were described as “sinister” threats to some border staff checking goods.

Unionists are strongly opposed to the checks because they don’t want Northern Ireland to be treated differently to the rest of the UK. In March, one group wrote to the Prime Minister to withdraw support for the Good Friday agreement. There have also been a series of demonstrations and protests against the idea of any kind of border in the Irish Sea. 

Speaking after his meeting with President Biden on 10 June, Boris Johnson said that there was “complete harmony on the need to keep going, find solutions and make sure we uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement”.

If this dispute, which is one of the key issues of the Brexit agreement, cannot be resolved, there is a threat of a trade war between the EU and the UK. Therefore, the US president emphasized the need to “stand behind” the Northern Ireland Protocol during his first overseas visit.

At a press conference in Brussels ahead of the summit, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen again insisted the protocol was the “only solution” to prevent a hard border with the Republic and must be implemented in full. “We have shown flexibility, we will show flexibility, but the protocol and the Withdrawal Agreement have to be implemented completely,” she said.

Leyen also brought up his sensitivities on the subject during the summit. Now the UK is at a crucial turning point to untie the final sensitive knot on Brexit.