The United Kingdom and European Union have announced changes to the mechanism governing trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In the three years since the UK’s official withdrawal from the EU, the Northern Ireland Protocol has been an ongoing point of contention, which even led to the collapse of the government in Belfast last year.
What’s in the deal?
Under the current arrangements, all products arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain are checked, as the province effectively remains in the EU’s single market for goods, while the rest of the UK does not.
As part of the changes, goods intended for Northern Ireland will be placed in a ‘green lane’, facing reduced checks. Products which are passing through Northern Ireland, destined for the Republic of Ireland, will be placed in a ‘Red Lane’ and will continue to face checks.
What does the deal mean for Northern Ireland’s consumers?
In the short term, consumers may have easier access to more products from Great Britain, as burdensome checks will be reduced.
Since Brexit, the majority of trade coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK has been intended to remain there and not to be transported into Ireland (and, therefore, the EU).
While the checks meant the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland remained frictionless – as laid out in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement – some British businesses had reduced trade with Northern Ireland.
And according to Catherine Sarah Barnard, the Deputy Director of UK in a Changing Europe, the effects of any deal on trade flows between Northern Ireland and Great Britain could be limited, due to difficulties with accessing a trusted trader scheme.
“[The changes] will help the supermarkets because they have good supply chains and they will go through on the green line and they have good documentation to show what goods are going into Northern Ireland.”
“On the other hand, the smaller importers and those who sell to wholesalers are still going to have problems. They will have to go through the red lights, they will have to produce paperwork” she said.
Will power-sharing restart in Northern Ireland?
In February 2022, the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), resigned from Northern Ireland’s executive, causing the government in Stormont to collapse.
The party argued the checks enforced because of the protocol undermined Northern Ireland’s position in the UK and effectively created a trade border within the UK.
While this deal reduces that barrier, it does not destroy it entirely.
It is therefore unlikely to meet the seven tests set out by the DUP to ascertain whether the changes ‘respect’ Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.
However, in the longer term, it may lead to a softening of the party’s position, especially if the UK and EU governments are in agreement.
“There will be huge pressure on the DUP to take advantage of this general opening up and re-enter into power sharing because there are huge issues facing Northern Ireland, not just matters of peace and trade as we’ve been talking about,” said Barnard.
What next for UK-EU relations?
Since taking power in October, British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has sought more cordial relations with the EU, compared with his predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.
If this deal holds, it could end the increasingly fractious legal spat between the two sides. Last year, the UK drafted legislation that would unilaterally override parts of the Brexit treaty, saying it threatened the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, which brought most sectarian violence in Northern Ireland to an end. In response, the EU launched legal action against the UK.