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What is the Northern Ireland/Ireland Protocol?

The Northern Ireland/Ireland Protocol is an annex to the Withdrawal Agreement agreed between the United Kingdom and the European Union in October 2019. It is a legal document that acknowledges the unique situation of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the specific impact Brexit will have on the land border between them.

The UK and Ireland’s shared membership of the European Union supported the free movement of trade across the Irish border. Being part of the EU customs union and the EU single market meant following the same rules, standards and regulations and removed the need for tariffs and border checkpoints. Given Northern Ireland’s history of conflict, this was economically and politically important because it helped to make the border a less divisive issue. The protocol is a creative and complex solution designed to avoid the reintroduction of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Now that it has left the EU, the UK is seeking to negotiate new trade deals. The terms of the protocol allow Northern Ireland to be part of the UK customs territory. This means that Northern Ireland will follow whatever opportunities and obligations result from UK trade policy, including rules attached to future trade agreements between the UK and other countries.

But, to maintain an open border and avoid customs checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the protocol allows Northern Ireland to access the EU single market for goods. This means that, when it comes to producing goods, for example, in agricultural and food products, or manufactured goods, the rules followed in Northern Ireland have to remain in line with EU rules, even if the rules in the rest of the UK change.

This requires some checks and controls on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, if those goods are at risk of crossing the Irish border into the EU market. Checks might involve physical inspections on certain goods coming from England, Wales or Scotland, and/or additional paperwork for businesses. These checks are designed to ensure that only goods that are in line with EU rules and meet EU standards can freely enter the Republic of Ireland (and, therefore, the European Union) via Northern Ireland.

EU customs duties (tariffs) will also apply to goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK unless it is clear that these goods are not at risk of crossing the Irish border and thereby entering the European Union. The task of determining which goods will end up in the EU is being undertaken by a Joint Committee set up by the EU and the UK to oversee the implementation of the protocol.  

The protocol also gives the Northern Ireland Assembly a decisive voice on whether to continue with these arrangements. Every four years after the end of the transition period (after 31 December 2020), the Assembly can vote to continue or to end the arrangements set out in the protocol. If the Assembly votes to end these arrangements, the protocol would no longer apply two years later.

The protocol is due to come into force on 1 January 2021.