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Brexit: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

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Lorry at a port in Northern IrelandImage source, Getty Images

The UK government wants to be given the power to override the Brexit deal it signed on Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Protocol has been a source of tension since it came into force at the start of 2021.

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

Special trading arrangements were needed for Northern Ireland because it has a land border with an EU country - the Republic of Ireland.

Before Brexit, it was easy to transport goods across this border because both sides had the same EU rules.

After Brexit, a new system was needed because the EU has strict food rules and requires border checks when certain goods - such as milk and eggs - arrive from non-EU countries.

The border is also a sensitive issue because of Northern Ireland's troubled political history. It was feared that cameras or border posts could lead to instability.

The UK and the EU agreed that protecting the Northern Ireland peace deal - the Good Friday Agreement - was an absolute priority.

So, both sides signed the Northern Ireland Protocol as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

It is now part of international law.

How does the protocol work?

Instead of checking goods at the Irish border, the protocol agreed that any inspections and document checks would be conducted between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales).

These take place at Northern Ireland's ports.

It was also agreed Northern Ireland would keep following EU rules on product standards.

How does the UK want to change the protocol?

The green lane would be for trusted traders transporting goods to Northern Ireland only. These would be exempt from checks and customs controls.

The red lane would be for products going to the EU, including the Republic of Ireland. These would undergo full checks and customs controls.

Tax rules would also be changed. Northern Irish businesses currently follow EU rules on state aid and VAT. That means government payments to help firms in Northern Ireland, and tax breaks, must be within limits set by the EU.

The UK government wants to remove these limits.

It also wants an independent body to settle disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol, rather than the European Court of Justice.

Who opposes the protocol?

Unionist parties support Northern Ireland being part of the UK. They argue that placing an effective border across the Irish Sea undermines Northern Ireland's place within the UK.

Northern Ireland's largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionists (DUP), is refusing to take part in Northern Ireland's power-sharing government unless its concerns are resolved.

Even though the DUP came second in May's elections to Sinn Fein - a nationalist party which accepts the protocol - a new Northern Ireland government cannot be formed without its support.

The government says it is allowed to change the terms of an international agreement, like the protocol, in order to "safeguard an essential interest".

It says disputes about the protocol threaten to undermine peace in Northern Ireland.

What is the EU saying?

On 15 June the European Commission took legal action against the UK for not keeping to the protocol and called on the government to return to negotiations.

It said it is not prepared to renegotiate the protocol, but has offered to work on how the rules apply.

It has also set out its own suggestions for improvements, including:

  • reducing customs and checks on goods
  • reducing the amount of paperwork
  • relaxing rules so chilled meats can still be sent across the Irish Sea
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Chilled meats - including sausages - have been a particular sticking point

What happens next?

Any legislation needs to go through Parliament, which could take months.

But the EU said it would consider taking the UK to the European Court of Justice if it does not have a response to its 15 June proposals within two months.

That could mean legal action leading to fines and some experts fear a possible trade war.