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

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

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has hailed a “decisive breakthrough” on a deal for the Northern Ireland protocol. Called the “Windsor Framework” parties in Northern Ireland are looking at what the new deal entails, with hopes it will be enough to restore powersharing in Stormont.

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.

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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 last election in May 2022, have accused the government of letting the DUP “hold society to ransom”. Here’s everything you need to know about the Northern Ireland 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.

A lorry passes an anti ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ sign as it is driven away from Larne port, north of Belfast in Northern Ireland (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)A lorry passes an anti ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ sign as it is driven away from Larne port, north of Belfast in Northern Ireland (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
A lorry passes an anti ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ sign as it is driven away from Larne port, north of Belfast in Northern Ireland (Photo: AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via 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. 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 have been opposed to the protocol as they believe it creates a trade border and undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

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

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

What are the main changes in the deal?

Speaking at a press conference in Windsor Guildhall, the PM explained: “Together we have changed the original protocol and are today announcing the new Windsor Framework. Today’s agreement delivers smooth-flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our union and safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.”

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

Changes expected in the new agreement include:

  • 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 deal may need be to voted on in Parliament. Downing Street has not confirmed a vote as of yet, but if the PM does does allow one, he is likely to win.

Why are Unionists in Northern Ireland against the protocol?

Unionists in Northern Ireland have been 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.

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DUP make a statement at Stormont after May elections (Pic: Getty Images)DUP make a statement at Stormont after May elections (Pic: Getty Images)
DUP make a statement at Stormont after May elections (Pic: Getty Images) | 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 opted not 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 protocol will not be scrapped entirely, instead changes have been made to the deal, with the PM only scrapping the previous legislation to override parts of the protocol deal made by his predecessor. This in turn will see Brussels end its legal action against the UK.

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