The Prime Minister is currently visiting Northern Ireland as the UK is set to introduce legislation that would allow government ministers to override parts of the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland. Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss is expected to announce the Government’s legislative plans in a statement to the House of Commons tomorrow, which is set to strip away parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol to enable easier trade.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is refusing to enter the assembly, as it has argued that the Protocol has undermined Northern Ireland’s position in the UK, with Northern Ireland treated differently from England, Scotland and Wales. Regarding the DUPs decision not to enter the assembly without assurances on the Protocol, Sinn Fein President Mary-Lou McDonald accused the opposition party of “hold[ing] society to ransom”.
The Prime Minister today met with Northern Ireland’s five largest political parties to encourage the return of the devolved government, however no party expressed enthusiasm or clarity regarding the Government’s plans. Indeed, it seems that the Prime Minister did not share the full extent of Government plans in his meetings.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
The Northern Ireland Protocol formed part of the Brexit deal, allowing goods to pass freely between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which itself remains in the EU. The protocol was designed as politicians do not want new checkpoints on the border, due to Northern Ireland’s violent past. Instead, checks on goods are done when they arrive in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. This has proved unpopular with Unionist politicians, as they argue it has led to Northern Ireland being treated differently than England, Scotland and Wales.
While the Prime Minister himself signed the deal, he has indicated that changes are needed, saying that the protocol is now out of date following the pandemic and the current cost-of-living crisis. The EU has said that any attempt to unilaterally override the protocol would lead to retaliation, however the Prime Minister has insisted that, while he was open to dialogue, the UK would be forced to act if the EU did not change its position.
While the UK government and unionist parties have made the case that the Protocol is economically damaging, there is an inconclusive and limited evidence base for this claim. While the Institute for Economic Affairs has published research (with a limited dataset) that the protocol is costing £850 million per year, a more recent piece of research disputed this claim. The National Institute of Economic and Social research suggested that in fact, Northern Ireland’s economy has outperformed the UK average in part due to the protocol. However, to be clear, claims either way are rather contentious.
Recent elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly led to Sinn Fein becoming the largest party, the first time that a republican party has held the most seats in Stormont, which has traditionally been dominated by Unionist parties. Following the May elections, 53 of the 90 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly are held by parties who want the protocol to remain in place, while only 37 are held by parties who wish to scrap the protocol.
Given this poor electoral showing from unionist parties in the May elections, the Prime Minister will have to judge this crisis very carefully. How he approaches the thorny issue of the Protocol could have serious implications not just for the return of the Assembly, but also for the future of the Union. Certainly no UK Prime Minister (least of all a Conservative one) wishes for this to be their legacy.