What is the Northern Ireland Protocol? Rishi Sunak agrees deal with Ursula Von der Leyen

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was last week reportedly facing rebellion from his own ranks due to his stance on the the part of the Brexit deal that sets out trade rules for the region (Oli Scarff/PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was last week reportedly facing rebellion from his own ranks due to his stance on the the part of the Brexit deal that sets out trade rules for the region (Oli Scarff/PA)

Rishi Sunak has come to an agreement with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on new Northern Ireland post-Brexit rules following talks on Monday afternoon.

Several media outlets including the BBC, Sky News and PA said a deal had been struck, citing a senior Government source.

It had been stated the prime minister and president would discuss a “range of complex challenges” around the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The prime minister and the EU chief met at a hotel in Windsor early on Monday afternoon. News of the apparent deal caused a surge in the value of the pound against the US dollar.

Mr Sunak is planning to brief his Cabinet before announcing to voters and MPs the details of any agreed deal.

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The Northern Ireland Protocol has been a source of tension since it came into force at the start of 2021.

Debate on it has caused fissures in the Tory Party for the past three years and led to the suspension of power-sharing in Belfast.

Mr Sunak was last week reportedly facing rebellion from his own ranks, as well as pressure from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), due to his stance on the protocol. The DUP, the unionist, loyalist, and national conservative political party in Northern Ireland, has the highest number of parliamentary seats in the region.

So what is the Northern Ireland Protocol, how does it work, and how does the UK want to change it?

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The Northern Ireland Protocol is the trade deal that was agreed to ensure the free movement of goods across the Irish land border after Brexit.

Before Brexit, it was simple to move goods across this border because both sides abided by EU regulations. But because Northern Ireland shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU, special commercial arrangements were required after the UK exited the EU.

The land border is a contentious subject due to the complicated political history of Northern Ireland. As part of these checks, it was anticipated that border checkpoints or cameras may cause unrest.

The UK and the EU agreed that protecting the Northern Ireland peace deal — the Good Friday Agreement — was an absolute priority.

How checks between Britain and Northern Ireland work

Certain goods, such as eggs and meat, need to be checked when they enter Northern Ireland from Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales).

Goods dispatched from Great Britain are checked at Northern Ireland ports such as Larne and Belfast.

Once approved, goods can move across the border into the Republic of Ireland.

How does the UK want to change the protocol?

The Government plans to establish red and green lanes for products transported into Northern Ireland from Great Britain,

Only reputable businesses shipping goods to Northern Ireland would be permitted to use the green lanes. These would not be subject to inspection or customs regulations.

Products headed for the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU would travel in the red lane. These would go through thorough inspections and customs restrictions.

Additionally, tax laws would also be changed. Currently, Northern Irish enterprises adhere to EU regulations regarding VAT and state aid. Therefore, tax reductions and government assistance to businesses in Northern Ireland must adhere to EU-set restrictions.

The Government wants these restrictions to be lifted.

It also wants an independent body to settle disputes over the protocol, rather than the European Court of Justice.

Who opposes the protocol?

Unionist parties support integrating Northern Ireland with the UK. They contend that creating a physical border across the Irish Sea threatens Northern Ireland’s status as a member of the UK.

The DUP has said that it will not participate in the power-sharing government unless its issues are addressed.

Even though the DUP came second in May 2022 elections to Sinn Féin — a nationalist party that accepts the protocol — a new Northern Ireland government cannot be formed without its support.

Medicine supply issues

Both the UK and the EU have negotiated some major changes to the protocol with a new deal being announced soon. However, many worry these changes will not go far enough, including that of medicines, a hotly contentious matter of late.

As Northern Ireland is still inside the EU’s pharmaceutical regulatory system, several logistical problems have emerged.

One of the biggest issues surrounding medicine products and the protocol is the application of the EU Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) to Northern Ireland, but not to Great Britain. This requires distributors moving medicines to Northern Ireland to verify samples, ensuring they comply with the EU requirement for a safety feature, and to decommission certain products from the European product-verification system.

For medicine products entering Northern Ireland, it places burdens on distributors. For medicines moving from the EU to Northern Ireland via Great Britain, it places administrative burdens when it comes to deactivating and reactivating security features.

Another issue is the changing to the licensing of some medicines — a requirement by the Government — meaning that products sold under an EU licence will then have to move to a GB one.

The deadline for changing existing licences to GB licences is the end of 2023.

Some manufacturers have added to this concern by stating that it wouldn’t be commercially viable to produce Northern Ireland-only packs.

Lord Jay of Ewelme, chair of the sub-committee on the NI Protocol, has said that “while legislation was welcome as far as it went, it is clear that significant issues remain unresolved”. He said these issues “must not fall off the radar”.

He added: “Medicines matter to everyone, regardless of their political views. It would be morally indefensible for patients to be caught in the crossfire like this, to be treated as chess pieces in a much larger political game.”