Will the crisis in Ukraine act as a catalyst to solve the Northern Ireland Protocol? It seems not.
By Harry Brown
As the West shows a united front against Russia, the long-running issues creating tensions between some of its key component parts - the UK, EU, and to some extent, the US - regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol rumble on. Even today, the Protocol was back in the headlines as Northern Ireland’s Lady Chief Justice, Dame Siobhan Keegan, rejected Unionists' claims that the protocol was unlawful.
The news could perhaps be interpreted as a victory for the UK Government, but Unionists have already suggested they will now elevate their claim to the Supreme Court. Moreover, the Northern Ireland Protocol rearing its ugly head again could not come at a worse time for the UK Government. Facing problems on numerous fronts, the Protocol serves as a stark reminder to a government that campaigned on “getting Brexit done”; it remains anything but.
For context, under terms negotiated in 2019 and agreed in December 2020, Northern Ireland formally sits outside the EU single market. However, the EU free movement of goods rules and EU customs rules still apply, effectively creating a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea. This profoundly concerns Unionists in Northern Ireland who believe this separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Since 2016, the Protocol has been a thorn in the side of successive Conservative governments (and arguably EU member states) who cannot find a way to please all parties.
Yet after years of trying to find a resolution with the EU, it had appeared that the UK government had become more bullish, publishing a fresh set of demands earlier in the year that amounted to a fundamental change to the existing Protocol. It also accused the EU of applying the rules too rigidly and claiming that the Protocol represented a significant compromise on the UK part.
Furthermore, the seventh and most newly appointed Brexit negotiator, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, stated in a column at the start of the year that she was willing to trigger Article 16, which allows either side to suspend the agreement and would essentially take us back to square one.
However, the war in Ukraine appears to have softened the UK's stance. According to reports, Truss wrote to the Prime Minister suggesting that plans to trigger the Article should be put on hold as the EU and UK seek to work together in bringing about peace in Ukraine rather than rowing with each other once more over the Protocol.
On the ground, this prolonged drama has real impacts. Businesses have complained over the temporary nature of the transitional arrangements, with the full implementation of checks still to come. Furthermore, with Stormont elections taking place in May, the narrative has become increasingly hostile as the parties vying for power draw their battle lines.
With the potential for a shift in the balance of power within the Northern Ireland Executive should Sinn Fein top the polls in May, an ongoing war in Europe, and further dates in court regarding the legality of the Protocol, don’t expect a resolution to one of Brexit and trade’s most challenging questions anytime soon.