British Foriegn Secretary Liz Truss tabled a bill in the House of Commons on Monday to change the original Northern Irish Protocol deal signed by Boris Johnson in October 2019.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a trade deal that allows British goods tariff-free access to the European market as they had as a member state. This is facilitated by customs checks at ports in Northern Ireland, to ensure that British products meet the strict EU standards that all member states must abide by in order to be sold. The products can then be shipped across the EU from the Republic of Ireland, allowing goods from Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales to still have access to the European single market as they did before Brexit.
This deal was proposed as the best possible option for trade, but more importantly, for the maintenance of peace between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Given the recent violent history of Northern Ireland that was only resolved with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, both the government in the Republic and the EU have kept this at the forefront of negotiations. It has become what some call a border in the Irish Sea instead of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which both sides wanted to avoid. This is why the UK government agreed to the border in the Irish Sea in 2019.
However, that has now changed in this very serious move by the British government. The new bill scraps checks and standards for goods in Northern Ireland in a controversial move. It proposes that goods for Northern Ireland only will use a green lane, which will mean they will get fewer customs checks. Those going to European countries will have to follow a red lane that will maintain the existing checks that legally must be done within the EU.
It will also allow companies in Great Britain exporting to Northern Ireland to choose between meeting EU or UK standards for their products, a standard that is expected to increasingly differ and diverge. The European Court of Justice will also no longer be able to resolve matters in trade disputes related to Northern Ireland and instead, an independent arbitration process will be set up.
Since Liz Truss claimed on Monday that the UK government was “completely serious” about this legislation, it has received widespread condemnation in the following 24 hours. The Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Ireland, Simon Coveney, said yesterday from Dublin that, “we are forced because of UK action to respond to what we certainly see as a breach of international law. If you are legislating to set aside elements of an international treaty, which is international law, well, then you're breaking international law”.
While he stressed that the EU wanted to comprise and continue to negotiate, he also highlighted how the UK government went, “against majority opinion in Northern Ireland, to breach its words to Ireland, in terms of trying to deal with the disruption of Brexit on this island, and to breach an international treaty and international law, that it's signed and designed and ratified with the EU.”
On Monday evening, the majority of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in Northern Ireland signed a letter to Boris Johnson expressing their opposition to this new bill to change the Northern Ireland Protocol. The letter has been signed by 52 of the 90 MLAs representing Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. No MLA from the 3 unionist parties in Northern Ireland, such as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), signed the letter.
This is indicative of the potential reasons why Boris Johnson has supported this new bill, which he described yesterday as “not a big deal”. The DUP are currently refusing to go into devolved government in Northern Ireland until issues around the Protocol are sorted, as they see it. It is the view of hardline unionist parties and many Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) in Westminster that any differential treatment of Northern Ireland undermines the existence of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland, as it is officially titled. A border down the Irish Sea and different customs rules are seen as undermining Northern Ireland’s relationship with the UK. Under pressure to be seen as the government of all regions of the UK that is willing to solve Northern Ireland’s increasing economic problems, this bill may be the Conservative’s response.
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