What is the Northern Ireland protocol and why is it back in the news?
The protocol was part of the UK’s 2019 Brexit divorce deal with the European Union. To avoid imposing a trade-and-customs border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland it put one in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which in effect remained part of the EU trading bloc. It requires checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Unionists say this undermines Northern Ireland’s position in the UK and could lead to an economic united Ireland. The issue has returned to centre stage because the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) says it will not join a new executive at Stormont unless Boris Johnson’s Tory government alters the protocol.
Why does this matter?
Northern Ireland just had an election for a new Stormont assembly, which is supposed to form an executive – a devolved government with ministers – on Thursday. Power-sharing rules require DUP participation. Refusal to do so will paralyse the executive, creating an impasse that would destabilise Northern Ireland.
What can the UK government do about this?
Downing Street would like to unilaterally change or even dump the protocol – this would please Brexiters and unionists. But it would trigger a trade war with the EU, darken economic gloom and unravel Johnson’s ageing promise to “get Brexit done”. So the prime minister’s team is expected to try to persuade the EU to soften the protocol, with a familiar mix of threat, bluster and warnings. There is no guarantee of a compromise. A trade war could yet happen.
What might a compromise look like?
The European Commission could widen the list of products that are exempt from checks at Northern Ireland ports and fudge any role the European court of justice has in administering the protocol. Nevertheless, the EU vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, has played down the prospect of big concessions. “The EU has already shown a lot of flexibility by proposing impactful, durable solutions and we stand ready to continue discussions.” The Irish government has backed this position.
Where does this leave Northern Ireland?
In limbo. Bar an unlikely breakthrough, the Stormont executive will this week become a zombified administration in which civil servants and ministers from the outgoing executive continue basic functions but cannot take big decisions or launch new initiatives. The executive has limited budgetary powers, which mainly reside at Westminster, but could take steps to alleviate the region’s cost of living and health care crises. If there is no executive after six months, the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Brandon Lewis, must call an election.
What will happen to the DUP?
If the protocol is significantly altered, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson could try to sell that to his party as a victory and lead it into a new executive, even one with a Sinn Féin first minister, restoring a semblance of normality. He could reject any deal as unacceptable. In either case he could also demand a new election to put the deal before voters in hope that the DUP would overtake Sinn Féin as the biggest party, giving it the right to nominate a first minister. Most people in Northern Ireland support the protocol while most unionists oppose it, with the most radical critics yanking Donaldson to a hardline position.
What does Sinn Féin say?
Having just overtaken the DUP – the first time a nationalist party has won most votes in Northern Ireland – Sinn Féin can nominate deputy leader Michelle O’Neill as first minister. Previously she was deputy first minister, a post with equal power but less prestige. Sinn Féin has previously collapsed Stormont over rows with the DUP but this time around is vowing to make it work, which would burnish its image in the Republic of Ireland, where it hopes to win power in the next election.
What about other parties in Northern Ireland?
Alliance, a centrist, unaligned party, and other moderates such as the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour party want an executive formed as soon as possible regardless of what happens to the protocol. The Alliance has argued for a change in the rules so that no one party can block the formation of an administration.