Queen's Policy Engagement

The UK Approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol

Dr Katy Hayward provides an analysis of the UK's command paper on the Northern Ireland protocol.

The UK Approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol

It has been seven months since the revised Protocol was agreed (October 2019) and four months since it came into force with the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement and the UK’s exit from the EU.

The recently-released command paper is the first official statement in which some of the consequences of that Protocol are being set out and acknowledged by the UK Government (UKG). As such, this should allow more constructive engagement with the challenges and reality of implementing the Protocol than has been possible to date.

This is a political/principles paper rather than a technical/details one. The paper serves primarily to assure both the EU and UK unionists and it can be said, judging by reaction to its publication, to have served this difficult task in key respects. It delivers important messages to the EU about the UK being ready to ‘respect and abide by the legal obligations’ the Protocol contains. It also assures unionists that the implementation of the Protocol is in the hands of the UK authorities and that there is no ‘international border’ between GB and NI.

The paper is focused primarily on the movement of goods across the Irish Sea and it marks a critical juncture in recognising the ‘headline’ changes to occur in this area. Many important aspects and effects of the Protocol are, however, merely skimmed over. It contains omissions and ambiguities, some of which are to be discussed and decided at UK-EU level and others of which will cause lingering political difficulties within NI in particular.

In light of the need to create a foundation for economic and political stability in Northern Ireland, there are three major areas of concern:

  • Despite the impression given (paragraph 50), the Protocol is not a document for political negotiation but for technical implementation.
    • This technical discussion will happen at UK-EU level and there will be no opportunity for NI elected representatives to directly shape or scrutinise those decisions.
    • The only form of input the UKG formally offers is a Business Engagement Forum to allow businesses (with NI Executive present) to ‘put forward proposals and provide feedback’.
    • Virtually none the specific questions that have been raised by businesses in NI let alone by the EU since the revised Protocol was revealed have been addressed in this paper.
  • A false impression is given that the Protocol is temporary and can be voted away by MLAs
    • This is not true (the consent vote only applies to Articles 5-10 of the Protocol).
    • This impression only reduces the incentive for constructive, collaborative engagement in meeting the challenges of the Protocol at NI level.
    • At the same time, it actively increases the incentive to make the Protocol another divisive political touchstone in NI electoral politics here.
  • There is still a need for a reality check regarding readiness for implementation of the Protocol by 1 January 2021, especially if this is to occur with minimal disruption.
    • There is a risk that political obfuscation and denial on this issue could once again cause unnecessary confusion, tension and harm to the interests of NI.
    • Compounding the problem, there is no recognition of the costs to arise from this Protocol for the NI consumer and NI businesses and no promise to mitigate these in any way.

To read Katy’s full analysis of the command paper, please click here.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Prof Katy Hayward
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Katy Hayward is a Professor in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen's University Belfast. She has particular expertise on cross-border cooperation and management, focusing on the case study of Ireland/Northern Ireland and the impact of EU membership. For more information and links to some of her recent publications, please see her Queen's homepage: https://go.qub.ac.uk/hayward

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