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Northern Ireland protocol explained: what is it, why does the UK want to amend it, and what has the EU said?

The UK government plans to scrap parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol through a Parliamentary Bill

The Northern Ireland protocol is once again in the headlines after the UK government published plans to scrap parts of the protocol.

The PM Boris Johnson wants to change the Northern Ireland Protocol to make transferring goods between the UK and Northern Ireland easier.

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They plan to change the legislation with a parliamentary bill and have reassured members of the public that it is entirely legal to do so.

However, the EU is against the new plans stating that they would “need to respond with all measures at its disposal” if the UK decided to go ahead with the changes.

The Northern Ireland protocol has proved contentious, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refusing to join the Northern Ireland (NI) power-sharing executive, citing the protocol as the cause.

Sinn Fein, who were voted the largest party at the recent election, have accused the government of letting the DUP hold “hold society to ransom”.

The protocol, which came into effect in January 2021, is designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, after the UK left the European Union (EU).

Since it was established, it has sparked conflict around the ports where checks take place in 2021.

Here’s everything you need to know about the protocol and what the PM has said.

What is the Northern Ireland protocol?

The Northern Ireland protocol was implemented to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland after Brexit.

It was approved by the EU and UK government in 2019 and came into effect from January 2021.

The protocol prevents checks being carried out on goods travelling between Ireland and Northern Ireland, by keeping NI within the European single market.

How does the Northern Ireland Protocol work? (Pic: National World/Kim Mogg)

England, Scotland and Wales left the European single market after Brexit, which means that there are additional checks for certain goods coming from the UK to Northern Ireland and vice versa.

Unionists are opposed to the protocol as they believe it creates a trade border and undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

Why is the Northern Ireland protocol needed?

Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK that has a border with the EU, and after Brexit, rules needed to be put in place so checks could be carried out on goods leaving and entering the UK.

To avoid a physical border and checks on the island of Ireland, the UK and EU drew up the Northern Ireland protocol, which moved the trade border to the Irish Sea.

There are concerns that if a physical border was installed or border checks were carried out between Northern Ireland and Ireland, that it would trigger political unrest.

Violent unrest in Belfast in response to the Northern Ireland Protocol (Pic: Getty Images)

What changes has the UK proposed to the protocol?

The UK agreed to the Northern Ireland protocol in 2019, but officials have since confirmed that they will be amending it through legislation in a Parliament Bill.

Border Communities against Brexit protestors in Newry, Northern Ireland (Pic: Getty Images)

The key changes focus on easing additional paperwork for businesses and introducing a red and green lane system.

The proposed system means:

  • Goods travelling from the UK into Northern Ireland (NI), which are staying in NI would use the green lane with minimal checks and paperwork.
  • Goods moving from NI into Ireland or the European Union would go through the red lane and undergo checks at NI ports.

The UK government has also proposed that trade disputes should be resolved by “independent arbitration” and not by the European Court of Justice.

They also want Northern Ireland to have the same tax breaks as the rest of the UK.

On 12 June, the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis reassured that the changes did not go against international laws on BBC Northern Ireland.

Speaking about the Parliamentary Bill, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss described it as “a reasonable, practical solution to the problems facing Northern Ireland”.

She added: “We are very clear that we’re acting in line with the law,” she said.

However, the changes will still have to be debated and voted on in parliament.

In a statement, the EU said it had “significant concerns” about changes being made to the protocol by the UK government.

Why are Unionists in Northern Ireland against the protocol?

Unionists in Northern Ireland are against the protocol as they see it as undermining Northern Ireland’s connection with the UK.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), described the protocol as an "an existential threat" to the future of Northern Ireland in their party manifesto.

In February 2022, the DUP first minister Paul Givan withdrew from the assembly, collapsing Northern Ireland’s power sharing executive over his concerns about the protocol.

DUP make a statement at Stormont after May elections (Pic: Getty Images)

In the latest election, held in May 2022, where the DUP came second to Sinn Fein, they also refused to return to the executive.

Under the rules of the Northern Ireland Assembly the executive cannot operate without both a First and Deputy First Minister who represent the Unionist and Nationalist communities.

The DUP refused to nominate one, citing their reason being the Northern Ireland Protocol.

DUP party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said that during a call with UK prime minister Boris Johnston he had “reiterated our position that we cannot nominate to an Executive until decisive action is taken on the protocol”.

However, not all of Northern Ireland is against the Protocol with 53 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly writing to Johnson stating they: “reject in the strongest possible terms your government’s reckless new protocol legislation”.

What has the EU said?

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Micháel Martin described the UK government’s decision as “very regrettable” (Pic: Getty Images)

EU chief negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič said the proposals were “damaging to mutual trust.”

He added: “It is with significant concern that we take note of today’s decision by the UK government to table legislation disapplying core elements of the protocol.

“The commission will now assess the UK draft legislation.”

This has fuelled fears that if the changes go ahead, the EU may pursue legal action and could trigger a trade war.

The Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin described the UK government’s decision as “very regrettable,” and has called for negotiations between the UK and EU.