The deputy leader of the Irish Republican party Sinn Féin (SF), Michelle O’Neill, described the step as “completely reckless”: On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson published a draft law that would include the so-called Northern Ireland to override the protocol. After three years of negotiations, the EU and Great Britain agreed on the additional Brexit protocol in 2019. It was ratified by the UK Parliament and came into effect on January 1, 2021. According to its regulations, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market, which means that there are physical controls on goods entering the province from Great Britain. This also prevented controls along the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Although a majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU in 2016 and the protocol enjoys widespread popular support, pro-British Loyalists and sections of Unionists oppose it. The largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), initially supported the protocol but was pushed to oppose it by radical loyalists in order not to lose the general election. It didn’t help the party – SF became the strongest force for the first time in May. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement requires the second largest party, the DUP, to co-elect an SF leader. In return, the DUP is demanding the end of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
With his initiative, Johnson is trying to distract from his internal party difficulties after the vote of no confidence against him, which he only narrowly won, and to bring the DUP back into the Northern Irish government. It is uncertain whether this will succeed. Johnson therefore wants to sell the protocol as a threat to the Good Friday Agreement, which was supposed to end the Northern Ireland conflict in 1998. In recent months, loyalist paramilitaries have repeatedly warned of attacks if they persist.
The changes presented on Monday go further than originally thought. Goods imported from the UK for the exclusive use of Northern Ireland are to be exempted from controls. In the future, companies should be able to choose whether they want to comply with British or EU standards. European courts should no longer be responsible for dispute settlement, only British ones – one of the main demands of the unionists. London argues that all this leads to a “reduction in red tape” as only a sixth of goods imported into Northern Ireland from the UK are transported further into the EU.
In a first reaction, DUP chairman Jeffrey Donaldson emphasized that it was “right” that Johnson acted. But his party feels no pressure to return to government. SF Deputy Chair O’Neill criticized the move. Together with 52 MPs, she signed a letter to the British Prime Minister. The politicians from the SF, Social Democrat SDLP and Liberal Alliance Party wrote: “To complain that the protocol lacks the consent of both communities while ignoring the fact that Brexit itself – let alone hard Brexit – lacks a majority is a grotesque act of political distortion.«
The EU is expected to take legal action against London’s move as early as this Wednesday. EU Vice President Maros Sefcovic stressed in a first statement that the EU did not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol. Words of rejection also came from Dublin. Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney of the right-liberal Fine Gael party accused London of creating tension and “endangering relations between the two islands”.
During a visit to Belfast at the weekend, British Labor leader Keir Starmer announced that if his party won the elections (due by early 2025 at the latest), the provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol would be reinstated in their existing form. He would undo unilateral changes by Johnson.