What is Northern Ireland Protocol? Agreement explained - and why EU and UK are in talks over NI Brexit checks

Brexit minister Lord Frost did not rule out the UK triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, but said there are a “range of options” under consideration

A sign on a lamppost reading "No Irish Sea Border" in the port town of Larne (Getty Images)

Talks aimed at ending the deadlock over the implementation of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in Northern Ireland have ended without a breakthrough.

Following a three-and-a-half hour meeting with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, Brexit minister Lord Frost said they had had a “frank and honest” discussion and had agreed to continue the negotiations.

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“There weren’t any breakthroughs. There aren’t any breakdowns either and we’re going to carry on talking,” he said.

But what is the Northern Ireland protocol and why is is still proving to be a sticking point in talks between the EU and UK.

What is the protocol?

It was how the EU and the UK overcame the main sticking point in the Brexit withdrawal talks: the Irish border.

To avoid disrupting cross-border trade and a return of checkpoints along the politically sensitive frontier, they essentially agreed to move new regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea.

That means the checks are now focused on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with goods continuing to move freely within the island of Ireland.

Trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is largely unaffected by the protocol.

The red tape applies on movement in the other direction. Since December 31, a range of regulatory animal and plant safety checks have been in operation, including physical inspections for a proportion of arriving freight at new port facilities.

Customs declarations are also required for incoming commercial goods.

How does the protocol work?

Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods. The region also applies EU customs rules at its ports, even though it is still part of the UK customs territory.

The protocol also sees Northern Ireland follow certain EU rules on state aid and VAT on goods.

Why are the UK and EU in talks again?

The UK is holding talks with the EU on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol

Tensions between the two are mounting with exports of sausages and chilled meats from the UK to Northern Ireland set to be banned at the end of the month.

How has UK reacted to the breakdown in talks?

Brexit minister Lord Frost did not rule out the UK triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, but said there are a “range of options” under consideration.

He told reporters: “We don’t see what risk is caused to Northern Ireland if chilled meats are imported there from GB.”

The Tory peer added: “It’s obviously best to find a negotiated agreement if we can and that’s what we are really intending to do. If we can’t, and we’re working very hard to do it, then obviously we consider all our options for next steps.”

Pressed on the possibility of triggering Article 16, he said: “There’s a range of things we may consider and we continue to consider them.”

What is Article 16?

Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol states the following: “1. If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures.

"Such safeguard measures shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation. Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Protocol.

"2. If a safeguard measure taken by the Union or the United Kingdom, as the case may be, in accordance with paragraph 1 creates an imbalance between the rights and obligations under this Protocol, the Union or the United Kingdom, as the case may be, may take such proportionate rebalancing measures as are strictly necessary to remedy the imbalance.

“Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Protocol.

"3. Safeguard and rebalancing measures taken in accordance with paragraphs 1 and 2 shall be governed by the procedures set out in Annex 7 to this Protocol.”

How has the EU reacted?

In a press conference afterwards, Mr Sefcovic insisted the EU has shown “enormous patience” in the face of “numerous and fundamental gaps” in the UK’s compliance with the agreement.

He said that any further backtracking will be met with a resolute response.

“Of course, as you would understand, the fact that I mentioned that we are at a crossroads means that our patience really is wearing very, very thin, and therefore we have to assess all options we have at our disposal,” he said.

“I was talking about the legal action, I was talking about arbitration, and of course I’m talking about the cross-retaliation.”

How have unionists reacted to the protocol?

Demonstrations against the Protocol by Loyalists have been ongoing, with several hundred attending an event in Portadown at the weekend.

The pro-Union community in Northern Ireland oppose the Protocol and the checks on goods arriving into ports as having created a border between the region and the rest of the UK.