Vulcan Insight

The Northern Ireland Protocol: a long road back to square one?

12 November 2021

Over five years removed from the referendum that kickstarted the entire Brexit process, yet we are still without a fully functioning post-Brexit agreement. The British Government agreed to a deal under the mantra, “Get Brexit Done”, yet it now retroactively disagrees with certain aspects of this deal, specifically provisions set out under the Northern Ireland Protocol, and in particular, the oversight role of the European Court of Justice. Albeit, the latter point has only gained prominence in recent weeks and months.

As it stands, the Northern Ireland Protocol ensures Northern Ireland remains in the EU’s single market for goods, allowing free-flowing trade between it and the EU. By virtue, this avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland which had been a sticking point in the years leading up to a deal eventually being agreed. The Protocol also, however, creates a trade border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. A point that is difficult to stomach for those who support the Union, and for businesses heavily reliant on trade with Great Britain.

To solve the problems with the Protocol, the EU engaged with local stakeholders in Northern Ireland and proposed measures to ease checks and controls for goods moving across the Irish Sea. The EU saw this as a reasonable solution but the British Government wants more. To the extent that Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney has questioned the British Government’s desire to come to an agreement.

Despite ongoing negotiations between Brussels and the British Government, the UK’s Brexit Minister, Lord David Frost has been quite vocal about “significant gaps” remaining pertaining to the visions of both sides on how the Protocol should function. David Frost has also been vocal in his flirting with the possibility of triggering Article 16 of the Protocol. A move that would unilaterally suspend certain aspects of the EU-UK agreement.

Evidence currently points to the British Government preparing to make such a move. In this move takes place, Minister Coveney emphasised on Sunday that the EU would “respond in a very serious way”. The Taoiseach Micheál Martin meanwhile urged the British Government to consider the impact of triggering Article 16 on the UK’s relationship with the EU and Ireland, in addition to the damage it would cause to the Northern Ireland peace process. Likewise this week, EU Commission Vice President, Maros Sefcovic, and chief Brexit negotiator for the EU, warned of the disastrous consequences that would come with triggering Article 16 for the stability of Northern Ireland, and the EU-UK relationship more broadly.

It is not clear yet if the British Government is genuinely intending on triggering Article 16 in the coming weeks or if it is merely a negotiation ploy. Lord David Frost insists that suspending the Northern Ireland aspect of the Brexit deal with the EU may be the “only option” should EU-UK talks stall out, but he also insists that the UK is “not giving up” yet and he remains positive. With speculation sure to mount up in the coming weeks, the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on Tuesday confirmed that planning for a possible no-deal Brexit is to be recommenced. In the meantime, it is likely that the UK will continue to negotiate with the EU on the Protocol, as former UK Prime Minister John Major described it in recent days, “with all the subtlety of a brick”.