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Prime minister Boris Johnson is unlikely to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol before May’s Stormont elections as the war in Ukraine absorbs government time and energy, the FT reports today (Friday 4 March).

Article 16 allows either party to take unilateral "strictly necessary" measures if applying the protocol "leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade".

The protocol was agreed as part of the UK–EU Withdrawal Agreement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

However as applying the protocol’s rules for moving goods from Great Britain – which left the EU customs union – into NI have proved complex, the PM has threatened to invoke Article 16 to suspend the protocol if the two sides cannot find common ground.

The EU has offered to compromise on some elements of the protocol. 

Protracted negotiations have made little headway in recent months despite a change of personnel with foreign secretary Liz Truss taking over from Lord Frost at the beginning of 2022.

Focused on Ukraine

The FT reports a government insider saying that the Russian invasion of Ukraine meant “the whole of government is entirely focused on the Ukraine war… with very little ministerial capacity for anything else”.

They said: “Before the Ukraine war, it was more likely that we could have triggered Article 16 before purdah kicks in. But now it’s looking pretty uncertain.”

As previously covered in the IOE&IT Daily Update, the UK and EU have dialled down the rhetoric on the protocol to present a united front on Ukraine.

It has been thought that the PM would use Article 16 to appeal to Tory right-wingers to distract from the “partygate” scandal which has seen his support ebb.

Targeted Article 16

Tory MPs believed he would still trigger the mechanism in a “Coke-lite” manner, targeting specific areas, the FT said.

The Telegraph reports that the impact of the protocol’s trade rules on moving kosher food has been a cause of concern. The Jewish community in Northern Ireland “are unable to access kosher goods” and are “literally struggling to practise their faith due to the protocol”, said a Whitehall source.

Senior Conservatives are concerned that Northern Ireland’s unionist parties could suffer in May’s elections due to the unpopularity of the protocol among their voters.

Some feel that DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson may “refuse to go back into Stormont if [the protocol] isn’t ripped up entirely. That point has been made to the EU,” said one minister.

Others in government said that Article 16 could still be triggered during election purdah.