Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland – called the protocol – “is turning into a political problem” that needs to be rectified.
The deal – which he negotiated and signed – went into effect in January 2021 and means Northern Ireland (NI) still follows some EU rules.
It was intended to avoid controls on goods crossing the border into the Republic of Ireland, but led to controls on goods arriving in the NI from Great Britain (GB).
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is opposed to 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. However, after the recent elections, most members of the assembly accept the protocol.
Johnson is pushing for changes to the agreement — and the administration is considering voiding parts of it — but that stands in stark contrast to what he said about the protocol at the time he negotiated it.
‘A good deal… with as few bureaucratic consequences as possible’ – October 19, 2019
Johnson made that assessment in the House of Commons shortly after agreeing to the terms of the deal, urging lawmakers to support it.
But the protocol’s annexes set out a long list of EU laws that would apply to the NI, including laws dealing with animal products 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,” he said, “will undergo regulatory checks in accordance with EU rules.”
And an internal document prepared by the Treasury – leaked a few weeks later – warned that “customs declarations and documentary and physical checks … will be highly disruptive to the NI economy.”
It also highlighted potential constitutional implications, saying that NI could be “symbolically separate” from the rest of the UK.
A year after the changes took effect, the NI Chambers of Commerce found that a very high proportion of members had experienced increases in the prices of goods and services and in the amount of time needed to transport goods.
‘If anyone asks you to do this, tell them to call the prime minister and I’ll tell them to throw that form in the trash’ – Nov 8, 2019
Mr. Johnson was asked by an NI businessman if he could tell his staff that they wouldn’t have to fill out customs declarations for goods going from NI to GB. Mr. Johnson said he could.
In subsequent negotiations, however, the need for formal NI-GB customs forms was waived – so this part of the prime minister’s promise was fulfilled.
‘There will be no checks for goods going from GB to NI, or NI to GB’ – Dec 8, 2019
In December 2019, Johnson said this on Sky News in response to a question about the warnings in the leaked Treasury document.
Parts of the Treasury document are now outdated (the possibility that tariffs or taxes could be levied on many goods crossing GB to NI, for example, was removed by the signing of the new EU-UK free trade agreement in December 2019). 2020).
But it clearly established that there would be a number of bureaucratic measures affecting GB-NI trade, including customs declarations, food safety checks, safety checks and regulatory checks on product standards.
The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), informs that between January 1, 2021 and March 20, 2022, several checks (either documents or physical inspections) were carried out at NI ports at:
- 157,349 food shipments
- 7,484 shipments of live animals
- 147 shipments were refused entry
And that’s 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 compliant with the Good Friday agreement’ – October 19, 2019
Boris Johnson stated this in response to a question in Parliament by the 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 said at the DUP conference in 2018 that “no British Conservative government could or should sign” an agreement with regulatory checks and customs controls between GB and NI.
On May 11, 2022, at a press conference in Sweden, Johnson said that the Good Friday Agreement meant that “things need to require cross-community support. Clearly, the Northern Ireland Protocol doesn’t do that and we need to address this.” ” .
The protocol has a consent mechanism which means that assembly members are invited to vote on it. The first consent vote is expected to take place in 2024.
‘There will be no border in the Irish Sea… over my dead body’ – 13 Aug 2020
In August 2020, Johnson made that promise – one he repeated over and over again.
But you don’t have to have passport controls and officers wearing pointy caps to qualify as a border.
NI is being treated differently from the rest of the UK for trade in goods, as the protocol said it would be. So there is a commercial border 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 EU said since then?
Boris Johnson says the EU has been very strict in its interpretation of the protocol, adhering to the letter of the law. In July 2021, he issued his proposals for change.
He wants to dispense with many of the checks the deal creates and rely on the honesty of the companies to ensure that no EU rules are broken.
When it comes to changing the treaty itself, the EU is resolute. European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said: “The protocol, as the cornerstone of [Brexit] exit agreement, it is an international agreement. Its renegotiation is not an option.”