Northern Ireland protocol explained in simple terms: what is it, why is it needed and could it be scrapped?

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

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and European Commission’s Maroš Šefčovič have made no breakthrough in negotiations regarding the Northern Ireland protocol.

Issuing a joint statement, they said they would continue to search for “potential solutions” in a “constructive and collaborative spirit”.

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.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended since February 2022, after former DUP First Minister Paul Givan stepped down in protest over the protocol. The DUP have since refused to join the power-sharing executive, leaving Northern Ireland in political deadlock.

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

Here’s everything you need to know about the protocol and what could happen today.

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.

Signs outside Larne Harbour in Northern Ireland (Photo: Getty Images)

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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. 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.

Will the Northern Ireland protocol be scrappped?

The UK Foreign Secretary and European Commission’s Maroš Šefčovič issued a joint statement along with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris following talks held on 16 January.

They said they had discussed a “range of existing challenges”. Adding: “They agreed that this scoping work for potential solutions should continue in a constructive and collaborative spirit, taking careful account of each other’s legitimate interests.”

Talks surrounding the protocol have been ongoing and whilst there is no predicted outcome, it’s hoped that they will establish framework for resolving key issues in the agreement which will lead to the restoration of the Stormont Executive in Northern Ireland.