The Northern Ireland Protocol is recognised as the most contentious element of the withdrawal agreement concluded between the United Kingdom and the European Union on the UK’s exit from the Union.
It was put in place to ensure that the border between Northern and Southern Ireland remained free of infrastructure and, ostensibly, to protect the functioning of the Belfast-Good Friday agreement, which has for over twenty years guaranteed peace in the once-troubled province.
However, since the end of the post-Brexit transition period in December, it has become increasingly clear that the practical application of the Protocol is problematic. Under its terms, in order to preserve the integrity of the EU’s single market, goods entering Northern Ireland – including from mainland Great Britain – are subject to EU regulation.
This has triggered the most lamentable unforeseen consequences. Fully 20 percent of all the EU’s checks on foodstuffs are now carried out in Northern Ireland, which has a population less than 0.5 percent of the entire bloc. Trade in horticultural products between GB and Northern Ireland has virtually ceased. Tractors intended for sale in Northern Ireland have been turned away at Larne port because of soil on their wheels.
All this has happened during the post-transition “grace period”, which, though extended, will soon end. It will then not be possible, for example, to sell in Northern Ireland chilled meat products, such as sausages, produced in GB.
Understandably, this has caused outrage in NI. There have been outbreaks of disorder, including a particularly troubling spate of rioting in Londonderry and Belfast at Easter.
Paradoxically, in the face of such glaring evidence that the Protocol is not working, the EU continues to assert that its strict application is the best way to protect the Belfast Agreement; this, despite the intervention of respected figures such as the Nobel Prize winner, David Trimble, who have warned that the Protocol poses an existential threat to the Agreement.
It is clear that the current state of affairs cannot continue. For that reason, the Government last week published a Command Paper setting out proposals to amend the Protocol. Prominent among them is the replacement of checks with a new “trusted trader” arrangement that would radically reduce the number of checks on goods.
The Command Paper is a set of proposals, not a demand. Predictably, the EU has responded that it will not renegotiate the Protocol, but will engage with the UK, which is a good sign.
The EU will be mindful that article 16 of the Protocol provides that either party may take “safeguard” measures in the event of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist” or “diversion of trade”. There is no doubt that those conditions currently prevail in Northern Ireland. The Government has indicated that, if necessary, it will put such measures in place.
Clearly, something is needed to break the logjam. The Belfast Agreement must be protected. The Command Paper may well prove the catalyst for a return to normal life in Northern Ireland.