Northern Ireland Protocol talks resume as Unionists say current situation is “not tenable”

Thu 6 Jan 2022
Posted by: Noelle McElhatton
Trade News

Talks are set to resume between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol and are likely to be a major issue in Northern Ireland elections in May.

According to the FT, the restart of the deadlocked protocol negotiations will be a “starting gun” for a politically volatile year that features the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

First Minister Paul Givan, of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), this week said it was “inevitable” that Stormont would collapse if issues around the protocol were not resolved and that the current situation is not “a tenable position”.

EU compromise

The EU has offered a range of compromises to ease the working of the protocol, as previously reported by the Daily Update.

However, UK negotiators have sought a more fundamental rewrite of the protocol, something that Brussels objects to.

Legal action

Those Unionist groups opposed to the protocol are claiming that border checks, which are required for goods coming from GB to NI, could be stopped by the end of the month.

As reported in the Belfast Telegraph, lobbying group Unionist Voice Policy Studies said it initiated legal action against the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) on 21 December, claiming that ongoing and future checks were “unlawful” without Executive authority.

However, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said DUP ministers like other ministers have a “legal obligation” to implement an international agreement.

Trade diversion

The protocol was put in place to prevent a hard border in Ireland. Goods moving between NI and the Irish Republic are not subject to customs checks as both territories remain within the EU customs union.

Trade with the Republic of Ireland surged last year, according to Ireland’s Central Statistics Office. Exports from NI to the Republic were up 63% to €3.2bn in the first 10 months of 2021. NI is also importing more from Ireland – up 46% to €922m.

Debate over dinner

Foreign secretary Liz Truss, who has taken over Brexit negotiations after Lord Frost quit the post before Christmas, is said to be seeking “rapid progress” when she meets her counterpart European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic next week.

The Telegraph reports that Truss will seek to win him over with dinner at her 17th century grace-and-favour dwelling Chevening House.

They will discuss familiar sticking points including the role of the ECJ.

Truss has said that triggering Article 16 remains on the table. This allows either party to suspend aspects of the protocol if it leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”.

In return Brussels has warned it could rip up the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement if the measure is triggered.