UK initiates plan to override Northern Ireland Protocol - what you need to know

ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports on the new proposals that would allow exports from Britain to Northern Ireland to follow either UK or EU standards and checks

The UK has initiated a plan to override parts of a key Brexit agreement with the European Union, ignoring threats from the bloc about the consequences of unilaterally breaking an international agreement.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has tabled the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in a bid to amend the agreement, despite warnings from the EU about the "deeply damaging" impact on relations which many say could result in a trade war.

She said the protocol is putting Northern Ireland in a "serious situation" because it is being "treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom", adding that her Bill is a "reasonable, practical solution".

In a summary of the legal advice it received in relation to the bill, the UK government said the “doctrine of necessity” provided a clear justification in international law for the non-performance of international obligations under “certain exceptional and limited conditions”.

“This is a genuinely exceptional situation, and it is only in the challenging, complex and unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, that the government has, reluctantly, decided to introduce legislative measures which, on entry into force, envisage the non-performance of certain obligations."

Negotiations about resolving issues with the protocol have been ongoing for 18 months and while the EU wants them to continue, the UK claims it is being forced into acting unilaterally because of an unwillingness in Europe to change large aspects of the deal.

The legislation proposing to override the Northern Ireland Protocol was introduced despite a majority of NI lawmakers writing to Boris Johnson, telling them they reject it in the "strongest possible terms".

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The Northern Ireland Protocol is a major aspect of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement which Boris Johnson agreed with the EU after taking over from Theresa May as prime minister.

A bespoke arrangement around NI needed to be found because it shares a land border with the EU, through Ireland, and the precarious political situation there, stabilised by the Good Friday Agreement, means politicians want to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland at all costs.

So lawmakers were faced with a problem; protecting the EU's single market from UK goods which may not comply with European standards while allowing trade to flow freely on the island of Ireland and ensuring trade could continue unfettered between NI and Great Britain.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was the solution negotiated by both sides and agreed by Mr Johnson in October 2019.

The protocol prevents a hard border between NI and Ireland, which would involve checks on goods and services moving south, by placing some checks on trade flowing to NI from Great Britain.

Fans of the protocol say it gives Northern Ireland the best of both worlds, access to the EU's single market while remaining part of the UK.

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What problems is it causing?

Critics say the checks on products coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland effectively cut it off from the rest of the UK and they are seriously affecting trade.

The Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland feel so strongly about problems being caused by the protocol that they are refusing to enter a power-sharing government with rivals Sinn Fein until the issues are resolved.

Northern Irish businesses which bought products from the rest of the UK are being so severely impacted by the bureaucratic checks - which the government insists are unnecessary - that many have been forced to stop trading.

The UK government also takes issue with the tax rules baked into the protocol which it says is preventing Northern Ireland from being able to take advantage of changes in the rest of the UK, such as VAT cuts.

And the DUP also says the protocol is risking political stability because it impacts an aspect of the Good Friday Agreement which says Northern Ireland should remain an equal part of the UK unless a majority agreed otherwise.

Another part of the Good Friday Agreement says Northern Ireland should be governed by a power-sharing executive, which the DUP is refusing to enter over in protest over the protocol.

Prime Minister Johnson says it is essential that issues with the protocol are resolved in order to restore a government in Northern Ireland so it can tackle the cost-of-living crisis.

There's also concerns in Westminster about the governance of trade disputes between the EU and UK, with the protocol currently making the European Court of Justice the final arbiter on any disagreements.

The EU's Brexit negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, said in a statement that the EU views the UK’s decision to table legislation over-riding elements of the protocol with “significant concern, as diplomatic tensions rose over the plans.

Mr Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president, suggested that the UK's move to amend the Northern Ireland Protocol will damage trade.

"Unilateral action is damaging to mutual trust," he said as he spoke at the commission headquarters in Brussels on Monday.

"The protocol provides business operators in Northern Ireland with access to the EU's single market for goods.

"The UK government's actions puts this access and related opportunities at risk."

He added that the commission would now look at restarting “infringement proceedings” against the UK which have been on hold since September 2021. What solutions is the government offering with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill?

The Foreign Office says the Bill will allow the government to address four key issues caused by the protocol; "burdensome customs processes, inflexible regulation, tax and spend discrepancies and democratic governance issues".

The EU says it has been negotiating within the provisions of the protocol, offering what it claims are solutions which would not involve tearing up the agreement.

But the UK says "it has become clear the EU proposals don’t address the core problems created by the protocol".

"They would be worse than the status quo, requiring more paperwork and checks than today. The EU have said they will not allow changes to the Protocol within its current negotiating mandate."

  • Checks on trade

The government believes it can reduce the impacts on east-west trade by creating 'green and red channels' to remove unnecessary costs and paperwork for businesses trading within the UK.

It says this could be done while ensuring full checks are done for goods entering the EU.

The green lane would be for UK goods, freeing them from "unnecessary paperwork, checks and duties" with only ordinary commercial information required rather than customs processes or complex certification requirements for agrifood products .

How has the Northern Ireland economy performed in comparison to other parts of the UK since the introduction of the protocol? ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith reports

This, the government says, reduces checks on agri-food goods, removes tariffs on UK trade and lifts unnecessary bans on goods.

Goods handled by businesses on the trusted trader scheme, under which firms provide information to give the EU confidence their products will not enter the single market, will also move on the green route.

The red lane would be for goods destined for the European Union or those handled by firms not on the trusted trader scheme.

These goods would be subject to full checks and controls and full customs procedures, something the UK government says would protect the EU single market.

  • Regulation

The government is unhappy with an aspect of the protocol which says goods need to comply with EU rules in order to be placed on the Northern Ireland market even when they will never enter the EU single market.

This is causing issues for businesses because they are being forced to complete new paperwork and processes, or comply with specific product requirements not relevant to them.

The UK solution is a dual-regulatory scheme which would allow Northern Ireland firms to put products on the market whether they apply to UK rules, EU rules, or both.

Whichever option they choose, NI businesses would be able to access the GB market with no barriers, ensuring unfettered access for NI goods in all scenarios.

The government says it has come up with a "robust set of safeguards to " avoid UK goods moving onto the EU market.

Traders themselves would be liable for placing goods on the market in accordance with the correct rules and would face "stringent penalties" for breaches.

Agrifoods would only be allowed to move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland through trusted traders.

  • Taxation

Under the protocol, Northern Ireland is still subject to EU state aid rules which ensures open and fair competition among nations in the bloc.

This, the government says, limits the level of support available in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK.

This kind of support cannot be granted without EU approval, "creating significant uncertainty and a two-tiered system in the UK", according to the government.

The government says it would maintain the existing arrangements on taxes but give ministers the freedom to adapt or disapply rules so that people in NI can benefit from the same policies as those elsewhere in the UK.

This will ensure NI can benefit from the same tax breaks and spending policies as the rest of the UK, including VAT cuts on energy-saving materials and Covid recovery loans, the government said.

  • Governance

Any dispute between the UK and EU regarding Northern Ireland is adjudicated by the European Court of Justice, something the British government says damages the sovereignty many Brexit-backers voted for.

The government wants disputes to be managed through more dialogue between the two sides and says an independent arbiter should be found when agreements cannot be reached.

It says disputes would be less likely under the UK's amendments to the protocol because new flexibilities, such as dual regulation and the green channel, "will give businesses and consumers new freedoms and choices which ensure they are not bound to follow rules over which they have had no say".

The Ferry port of Belfast is where Brexit Britain now comes into contact with the EU, Peter Smith explains in his report

Majority of Northern Ireland's lawmakers oppose the UK government's plan:

A majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly have signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Johnson stating their opposition to the proposals to amend the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The letter has been signed by 52 of the 90 MLAs. They represent Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

The letter to Mr Johnson states that the signatories "reject in the strongest possible terms your government's reckless new protocol legislation, which flies in the face of the expressed wishes of not just most businesses, but most people in Northern Ireland".

It continues that "whilst not ideal, the protocol currently represents the only available to Northern Ireland from the worst impacts" of Brexit.

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill is among the signatories. In a tweet she described the "unilateral actions of Mr Johnson" as "utterly reckless".

"It is clearly a breach of International Law. The impact on our businesses & economy could be colossal. The pro-protocol parties have jointly written to Boris Johnson today to firmly reject his legislation and approach," she tweeted.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has also stated his opposition to the proposed legislation, saying it would "ratchet up" tension and breach the UK's international commitments.

However Mr Johnson has said the plan to effectively override parts of the Brexit deal with Brussels was "not a big deal", and would introduce "relatively simple" bureaucratic changes while protecting the Good Friday Agreement.

'This is a really big deal. The British government insists it hasn't breached international law.... everyone I have spoken to says that is ridiculous,' ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston says

The MLAs say they share the desire to see post-Brexit arrangements work as smoothly as possible, but said the best way to achieve this is through engagement with the European Union.

"It is clear that solutions are available and deliverable - as have already been delivered in the area of medicines - but this must be on the basis of trust and the rule of law rather than law breaking and unilateral abrogation of treaty obligations," they say.

The MLAs said they "strongly reject" Mr Johnson's claim to be protecting the Good Friday Agreement.

"To complain the Protocol lacks cross-community consent, while ignoring the fact that Brexit itself - let alone hard Brexit - lacks even basic majority consent here, is a grotesque act of political distortion," they write.