Northern Ireland Protocol

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Concept.png Northern Ireland Protocol Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png

The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, commonly abbreviated to the Northern Ireland Protocol, is a protocol to the Brexit withdrawal agreement that governs the unique customs and immigration issues at the border on the island of Ireland between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the European Union, and on some aspects of trade in goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Its terms were negotiated shortly before the UK/2019 General Election and concluded immediately after it, in December of that year. The withdrawal agreement as a whole, including the protocol, was ratified in January 2020. The Republic of Ireland–United Kingdom border has had a special status since the thirty-year internecine conflict in Northern Ireland was ended by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. As part of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, the border has been largely invisible, without any physical barrier or custom checks on its 270 crossing points; this arrangement was made possible by both countries' common membership of both the EU single market and EU customs union and of their Common Travel Area.

On the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, the border in Ireland became the only land border between the UK and EU. EU single market and UK internal market provisions require certain customs checks and trade controls at their external borders. The Northern Ireland Protocol is intended to protect the EU single market, while avoiding imposition of a 'hard border' that might incite a recurrence of conflict and destabilise the relative peace that has held since the end of "the Troubles".[1]

Under the Protocol as originally agreed, Northern Ireland is formally outside the EU single market, but EU free movement of goods rules and EU customs union rules still apply; this ensures there are no customs checks or controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. Goods from Northern Ireland may be moved without restriction to Great Britain but not conversely. Thus, in place of an Ireland/Northern Ireland land border, the protocol has created a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from Great Britain, to the disquiet of prominent Unionists.[2]

Under the terms of Article 18, the Northern Ireland Assembly has the power (after 31 December 2024) to decide whether to terminate or continue the protocol arrangements. "The Withdrawal Agreement doesn’t state how Northern Ireland should give consent [to continue] – it is for the UK to determine how that decision is made" but the UK Government has already declared that the decision will be made by a simple majority of Assembly members. In the event that consent is not given, the arrangements would cease to apply two years thereafter. The Joint Committee would make alternative proposals to the UK and EU to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. If consent is given, then the question may be put again after a further four years. At the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly election, parties favouring continuance of the protocol won 53 of the 90 seats. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland's Unionist parties have objected strongly to the protocol: protesting against it, the Democratic Unionist Party has obstructed its operation and prevented the Northern Ireland Assembly from assembling.[3]

In February 2023, the European Commission and the Government of the United Kingdom announced agreement in principle (the "Windsor Framework") to modifications of the protocol.[4]


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