Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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Trust needed to overcome Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland impasse

The Sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland has today published an introductory report on the operation of the Protocol. The report identifies flaws in the approach both by the UK Government and the EU: on the part of the UK, a lack of clarity and transparency about what the implications would be, and a lack of readiness that undermined business preparedness; on the part of the EU, a lack of balance, flexibility and understanding of the political sensitivities in Northern Ireland; and a resultant lack of trust between the UK and the EU.

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Addressing the implications for Northern Ireland and Ireland of UK withdrawal from the EU has been the most fraught, technically complex and politically divisive element of the entire Brexit process. The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland that emerged from the Brexit negotiations has therefore been contentious from the start, and even more so since it came into force on 1 January 2021.

Since then, there has been economic disruption and political instability in Northern Ireland. Details of the Protocol’s practical operation were provided extremely late in the day, leaving businesses unprepared, in spite of their best efforts. The practical operation of the Protocol has therefore come as a shock, contributing to political instability in Northern Ireland and exacerbating underlying community tensions, which could even reverse the progress made under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Yet there are also potential opportunities under the Protocol, in terms of dual access to the UK and EU markets, North-South trade and foreign direct investment. These benefits will take time to bear fruit, and are dependent on political stability and certainty.

Both the EU’s rules-based rigidity consequent upon maintaining the integrity of the Single Market and customs union, combined with the Government’s apparent reluctance to accept its obligations under the Protocol, and indeed the consequences of its own policy choices, have led to a mutual lack of trust, hindering the ability to identify and implement solutions. If urgent steps are not taken to restore trust, Northern Ireland is destined to become a casualty of the post-Brexit serious deterioration in relations between the UK and the EU.

The report

The report finds that Brexit and the Protocol have reopened questions about borders and identity in Northern Ireland. While many unionists and loyalists object to the Protocol being imposed without their consent, many nationalists and republicans point out that Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland against the wishes of its people. This is against the backdrop of a democratic deficit, whereby significant aspects of EU law apply to Northern Ireland without its consent. Public opinion on the Protocol is split down the middle, deepening existing political and community divisions.

The committee finds that identifying solutions to the problems created by the Protocol has been hampered by a mutual lack of trust between the UK and the EU. The EU fears that the UK is seeking to undermine the Protocol and will not live up to its political and legal commitments, while the UK fears that the EU will always prioritise the integrity of the Single Market over the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. This has contributed to a serious deterioration in relations between London, Belfast, Dublin and Brussels.

The report calls on the UK and the EU to urgently resolve their differences if Northern Ireland and its people are not to become permanent casualties of the Brexit process. 

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