The Northern Ireland Protocol: What it is, what it isn’t and everything else you need to know.

It’s been a long time coming but it looks like we’re finally about to get closure on my all time favourite Brexit subplot, the Northern Ireland Protocol.

There’s been twists, there’s been turns, there've been colourful characters and even the occasional cliff hanger. So before the finale, time for a season recap.

For all you newcomers, below is an absolute back to basics, jargon-free, beginners guide to the NI Protocol. We’ll go through everything you NEED to know to understand the developments of the coming days. 

Disclaimer: I will use some generalities to keep things simple and not get lost in the weeds of how there is probably one member of the DUP who loves the NI Protocol. Equally this is précis for a deeply contentious issue. I’m giving you the basics. If you want advanced detail Peter Foster has a newsletter. If you need me to define Rishi Sunak or Brexit, I can't help you.

With that being said, let’s start with the most complex and slightly boring bit….


What is it?

Despite voting to remain in the 2016 referendum, N. Ireland left the EU after Brexit as part of the UK but the Republic of Ireland remained a member. The EU requires its members to check products arriving from any non-EU countries to ensure they meet EU rules and standards.

During Brexit negotiations the UK Government ruled out any arrangement that would negate the need for checks from goods travelling from the UK to the EU. This is sometimes referred to as ‘Hard Brexit’. 

The N. Ireland Protocol was agreed to prevent the need for road blocks, patrols and checks on the only land border between the UK and EU. Instead, checks are done at N. Ireland’s three ports rather than along its 500km border.

It means that N. Ireland follows the rules of the EU in terms of standards but uniquely is in both the UK market and the EU market offering economic opportunities.


What is it not?

The Protocol is not something that has been inflicted on the UK by the EU. It was a key part of Boris Johnson’s “oven-ready” Brexit Agreement, which he described as “a great deal”.

All current Conservative MPs (apart from three who won by-elections) campaigned on this deal during the 2019 General Election. All of these Conservative MPs campaigned to implement the Protocol.


Why do Unionists not like it?

Unionists (people who want N. Ireland to remain part of the UK) make up around 43% of the adult population of N. Ireland. Not all Unionists dislike the Protocol but the largest Unionist political party, the DUP certainly does.

They claim the Protocol unfairly separates them from the UK and represents a breach of both The Good Friday Agreement (see Glossary) and the Act of Union (see a history book). The UK Supreme Court disagrees with them on both. DUP claims that the Protocol has disrupted the supply of medicine have similarly been debunked and they are yet to convincingly outline how the Protocol is causing significant harm.

Despite this, they are refusing to form a government in N. Ireland until the Protocol is scrapped which definitely has absolutely nothing to do with the prospect of entering government as junior partners to Nationalists (people who want to see a United Ireland) for the first time.

Before you feel too bad for them, the DUP was the only major N. Ireland party that campaigned for Brexit and they held the balance of power at Westminster for two and a half years. During this time they refused to support any Brexit deal that would have removed the need for a Protocol. In this saga they have been their own worst enemy.


Why does everyone else in Northern Ireland kind-of like it?

For everyone else in N. Ireland (and no one seems to talk about everyone else despite everyone else being the majority), the Protocol is the least worst option when the UK decided to implement a very hard form of Brexit. 

Everyone who is not completely crackers, agrees it is almost impossible to police N. Ireland’s 500km border and any attempt to do so would badly impact N. Ireland’s economy, make life hell for border communities and could result in high levels of political violence returning to N. Ireland.

But it’s not all downsides. Since we stopped building ships, N. Ireland hasn’t done particularly well economically but the Protocol offers potential opportunities. As N. Ireland is now the only place both in the UK and EU we could become a magnet for investment but that aint gonna happen while political uncertainty remains.


Why are we talking about it?

There has been talk about improving the Protocol for as long as it has existed. Alongside the political fallout, businesses have highlighted the issues that will arise if / when the UK decides to diverge from the EU significantly on things like food standards. Supermarkets in particular have highlighted that they cannot create a separate line of products just for N. Ireland.


Yes, but why are we talking about it now?

Reports indicate that after months of negotiations and years of wrangling, the UK and EU are on the cusp of announcing a new agreement on the NI Protocol that will hopefully make the arrangement work better for businesses and acceptable to Unionists.


What is the UK government’s position?

With increasing international threats, massive economic pressures and a mountain of domestic crises, Rishi Sunak is keen to remove this particular crisis from his in tray. The UK government wants to see the reestablishment of a devolved government at Stormont to help them get a trade deal with the Americans, but most important for Brexit-happy Sunak is to remove the role of the European Court of Justice (see glossary) from having any say in any part of the UK. This has become something of a bugbear for the far right of the Conservative Party who are undermining Sunak from within his fractured party. Here’s another reminder that in 2019 they all claimed this was a great deal including the bit about the ECJ.


What is the EU’s position?

With a war in Ukraine and a multitude of other priorities, the EU wants to resolve this thorny issue as well. Their priority is to protect the rules and standards of the EU and ensure that N. Ireland doesn't become a back door for smugglers, and considering the UK’s record, can you blame them? For the EU, ensuring that the European Court of Justice (their court) has a say on their rules is a red line. The EU was also an important player in the N. Ireland peace process and so they want to see the government return to Northern Ireland as well.


Who are the key players?

Maroš Šefčovič: Vice President of the European Commission (kind of like the EU civil service). EU point person on Brexit issues. Previously a diplomat for his native Slovakia. Seems friendly. Pronounced 'chef-co-vitch'. 


Chris Heaton Harris MP: Not a Line of Duty baddie. Was appointed Secretary of State for N. Ireland under Rishi Sunak. Has been leading negotiations with the EU for the UK along with the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.


Jeffrey Donaldson MP: Leader of the largest Unionist Party in N. Ireland, the DUP. Likes: Defecting, platform shoes, making lists. Dislikes: Protocols and playing second fiddle to the next entry on the list.


Michelle O’Neill & Mary Lou McDonald: Leaders of Sinn Féin, the largest Nationalist party in N. Ireland and now also the largest party. Often overlooked but if the Protocol was scrapped and there was a hard border in Ireland, they would probably also refuse to form a government and we’d be back at square one.



The Agitators: Will denounce anything that looks like compromise by the UK Government, just don’t ask them what they would do differently. They include the likes of Jim Allister, Loyalist paramilitaries, Jacob Rees Mogg (who again, as a Conservative MP, campaigned to implement the Protocol) and David Frost (who actually NEGOTIATED the Protocol). 


Joe Biden: US President and proud Irish-American. The aul fella has been quietly asserting pressure on the UK to resolve the Protocol impasse in a way that respects both the Good Friday Agreement and the deal they signed with the EU. He’s made clear that until they do a US/UK trade deal is off the table.


What the hell does that mean? (Glossary)

GFA: The Good Friday Agreement. The 1998 peace deal which ended three decades of conflict in N. Ireland. Requires parties in N. Ireland to share power as part of a single government. 

Single Market: Allows EU countries to trade with each other without checks because they all follow the same rules and standards. Anything entering it needs to be checked.

Customs Union: Allows EU countries to trade with each other without checks because they have all the same taxes and tariffs on imports and exports. Anything entering it needs to be taxed.

SPS Agreement: Short for Sanitary and Phytosanitary. Standardises rules on food quality and practices to protect humans, animals and the environment. Relevant because of N. Ireland's important agrifood sector.

ECJ: The European Court of Justice. Any time there is a disagreement about the rules of the EU, the ECJ gets final say.

ECHR: The European Convention on Human Rights. Not an EU body. All signatories agree to abide by its rules on the treatment of humans. Includes things like promising not to do torture or slavery. Has been written into the Good Friday Agreement. The UK Government is considering leaving this too.

NI Protocol Bill: A law currently being considered by the UK Parliament. Would allow the Government to unilaterally renege on the international treaty they signed with the EU only three years ago.

The Tunnel: A euphemism for the intense period of critical negotiations where the final text is hammered out and everyone is over caffeinated.

Red Lane / Green Lane: A proposed change to the Protocol where products travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland which will be used in Northern Ireland will have fewer or no checks.