Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland – called the protocol – is “becoming a political problem” that needs to be addressed.
The deal – which he negotiated and signed – came into effect in January 2021 and means Northern Ireland (NI) is still following some EU rules.
It was intended to avoid checks on goods crossing the border into the Republic of Ireland, but it has resulted in checks on goods arriving in NI from Great Britain (GB).
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is against this because it has created a trade barrier with the rest of the UK. It will not allow the formation of a new government in NI unless there are significant changes. After the recent elections, a majority of the members of the assembly accepted the protocol.
Mr Johnson is pushing for changes to the deal – and the government is considering nullifying parts of it – but this is in stark contrast to what he said about the protocol when he negotiated it.
‘A good arrangement… with as few bureaucratic consequences as possible’ – 19 October 2019
Mr Johnson gave this assessment in the House of Commons shortly after agreeing the terms of the deal, urging MPs to support it.
But annexes to the protocol contain a long list of EU laws that would apply to NI, including those related to products of animal origin and the EU Customs Code.
The government’s own impact assessment published at the time was clear. “Goods arriving in Northern Ireland, including from Great Britain,” it said, “would undergo statutory checks in accordance with EU rules.”
And an internal document prepared by the Treasury – leaked a few weeks later – warned that “customs declarations and documents and physical checks … will be very disruptive to the NI economy”.
It also highlighted possible constitutional implications, saying NI could be “symbolically separated” from the rest of the UK.
A year after the changes came into effect, the NI Chambers of Commerce found that a very large proportion of members were dealing with increases in the price of goods and services and the amount of time it took to transport goods.
‘If anyone asks, tell them to call the PM and I’ll tell them to throw that form in the trash’ – November 8, 2019
Mr Johnson was asked by an NI businessman if he could tell his staff not to fill out customs declarations for goods going from NI to the UK. Mr Johnson said he could.
However, subsequent negotiations waived the need for formal NI-GB customs forms – so this part of the Prime Minister’s promise was fulfilled.
‘There will be no controls on goods going from GB to NI, or from NI to GB’ – 8 December 2019
In December 2019, Mr Johnson said this on Sky News in response to a question about the warnings in the leaked Treasury bill.
Parts of the Treasury bill are now obsolete (the possibility that tariffs or taxes could be levied on many goods moving from GB to NI, for example, was removed by the signing of the new EU-UK Free Trade Agreement in December 2020).
But it clearly set out that there would be a range of bureaucratic measures that would affect GB-NI’s trade, including customs declarations, food safety checks, security checks and regulatory checks on product standards.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) says that between January 1, 2021 and March 20, 2022, several checks (both on documents and physical inspections) were performed in NI ports on:
- 157,349 shipments of food
- 7,484 live animal shipments
- 147 shipments were refused entry
And this despite a series of “grace periods” – during which full implementation of EU rules was temporarily suspended to allow companies to get used to the new way of doing business.
‘It is fully compatible with the Good Friday Agreement’ – 19 October 2019
Boris Johnson made this claim in response to a question in parliament from DUP’s Nigel Dodds, who said the protocol “drives a carriage and horses through the Belfast Agreement” and urged Johnson to reconsider the plan.
He reminded the Prime Minister that he had told the DUP conference in 2018 that “no UK Conservative government could or should sign up” for a settlement of statutory and customs controls between the GB and NI.
On 11 May 2022, at a press conference in Sweden, Mr Johnson said the Good Friday Agreement meant “things need to force cross-community support. Clearly the Northern Ireland Protocol is not doing that and we need to fix it”.
The protocol has a consent mechanism which means that members of the assembly are asked to vote on it. The first approval vote is scheduled for 2024.
‘There shall be no border along the Irish Sea…over my corpse’ – August 13, 2020
In August 2020, Mr. Johnson made this promise – one that he has repeated several times.
But you don’t have to pass passport checks and officers in hats to qualify as a border.
NI is treated differently from the rest of the UK for trade in goods, as the protocol said it would be. So there is a trade frontier in the Irish Sea.
The DUP is deeply unhappy about this and has adopted the slogan “No border in the Irish Sea”.
What have the UK and the EU said since then?
Boris Johnson says the EU has been too strict in its interpretation of the protocol by following the letter of the law. He released his amendment proposals in July 2021.
He wants to forego much of the checks that come with the agreement, and rely on the honesty of companies to ensure no EU rules are broken.
When it comes to changing the actual treaty, the EU is resolute. European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said: “The protocol, as the cornerstone of the [Brexit] Withdrawal Agreement is an international agreement. Renegotiating is not an option.”