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Explainer: Why has a row broken out over checks between GB and Northern Ireland?

There’s a lot going on. Here it is, all broken down into bite-sized pieces.

Vehicles disembark from the P&O ferry arriving from Scotland at the port of Larne.
Vehicles disembark from the P&O ferry arriving from Scotland at the port of Larne.
Image: AP/PA Images

THERE ARE PROBLEMS with post-Brexit trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, no doubt.

Those problems have been highlighted this week when the UK government admitted that the issues weren’t simply “teething problems”, as it had said previously. Attention was also drawn to the Protocol when Northern Ireland and the European Commission told staff they temporarily didn’t have to carry out checks, amid possible threats to staff.

Despite a grace-period that the UK government introduced, which would mean that supermarkets don’t have to have health certificates for all agri-food products being sent from GB to NI, trade is still disrupted. 

In the House of Commons yesterday, senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove acknowledged for the first time that the problems were not “teething issues”, but in fact quite significant logistical obstacles.

These practical Brexit problems, and any possible solutions, have been muddied by the history of Northern Ireland politics: whether checks happen at Northern Ireland’s ports and airports, or along a land border on the island of Ireland, is a deeply sensitive political issue.

But Brexit was voted for by the British public on 23 June 2016. Both a divorce deal and a trade agreement were struck between the EU and the UK, then ratified in the two relevant parliaments, and so have a legal and democratic basis for being implemented.

What is the Protocol again?

brexit EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier being shown the cross border road on the N53 road between Co Louth and the A37 road in Co Armagh. May 2017. Source: PA Images

The Northern Irish Protocol was a part of the Withdrawal Agreement that aimed to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.

The backstop was to be one way of avoiding a hard border, but was flatly rejected by MPs in three votes over Theresa May’s Brexit deal – including the DUP. Put simply, the backstop meant the North (or the whole of the UK) would remain in the EU’s Custom Union to avoid checks.

Despite the Irish Government’s insistence that the backstop had to remain as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, another version of the Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed.

This version, which is now being put into practice, would mean that a regulatory and customs border would be placed along the Irish Sea, instead of on the island of Ireland.

This has left Northern Ireland in the EU’s Single Market (free movement of goods and people) while Great Britain has left it.

Northern Ireland and GB have both left the Customs Union, but customs checks on goods are carried out at NI ports and airports, instead of along the Irish border. If goods travel from GB through NI to Ireland, tariffs paid at the Irish Sea border won’t be rebated; if they stay in Northern Ireland, they will be reimbursed. 

What checks are in place now?

fishing-industry-in-fleetwood The introduction of new checks and paperwork since 31 December has caused huge disruption to exports of fresh fish and seafood to the EU, with producers becoming increasing frustrated at the lack of UK Government action. 28 January. Source: PA

New Brexit-related checks are being carried out at ports in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, instead of erecting new infrastructure along the jurisdictional border on the island of Ireland.

Goods can continue to move freely on the island of Ireland. Goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain are largely unaffected, but trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland faces a number of bureaucratic barriers.

These include animal and plant safety checks (called SPS or sanitary and phytosanitary checks), customs declarations for commercial goods, and physical inspections for some freight deliveries. 

The physical checks are what were called off after possible threats to staff at Belfast Port and Larne Port this week. All other elements of the Protocol are continuing.

Are all the new Brexit checks in place now?

brexit-northern-ireland A woman walks past past graffiti with the words 'No Irish Sea Border' in Belfast city centre. Source: AP/PA Images

No.

The health certs needed for the SPS checks are not required by supermarket hauliers for the next three months to help businesses adjust – but Michael Gove has formally requested that this be extended until 2023.

There is also a three-month grace period that means the majority of parcels sent to Northern Ireland from GB do not need customs declarations. This will end on 1 April.

Producers of sausages and other chilled meats – which are on a list of products that are banned from entering the Single Market from outside the EU – have also been granted a six-month grace period to allow imports from GB to NI until June.

Some of those problems

brexit Empty food shelves in Tesco in Banbridge, Northern Ireland. 14 January. Source: PA Images

There has been a myriad of problems with trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. To name a few:

  • In the first two weeks of checks, Marks & Spencer produced a list of 400 goods that it wouldn’t be able to import from GB into Northern Ireland. This lead to images of empty food shelves in Northern Ireland.
  • Brexit checks contained in the Northern Ireland Protocol mean that certain plants, soil, plant products and seeds can’t be imported from Great Britain.
  • Because of the requirement for health certs for every animal-derived food coming into the EU, items like cheese are more complicated to import from GB
  • Hauliers have said that there is a backlog of goods “of all hues” because there aren’t enough customs agents to process declarations. One MP claimed that just 12,000 out of 50,000 customs agents required in the UK have been recruited, and the money to recruit more has now “ran out”.

‘Green or orange’ issues

At the centre of this very complicated logistical and bureaucratic headache is a very sensitive political situation in Northern Ireland.

Responding to how the Irish Protocol has become an issue yet again, SDLP MLA Colin McGrath told a Seanad Committee yesterday that cultural and political sensitivities are being entangled with trade and logistical problems in carrying out Brexit checks in Northern Ireland.

“There is always a difficulty here in Northern Ireland that any issue that we take instantly comes green or orange, and it becomes one side of the community or the other.”

He said there needs to be a collective approach to this, as “the bottom line is the sale of a potato or a pencil”, and it doesn’t matter who it’s being sold to.

brexit-northern-ireland Lorries and cars disembark from a ferry arriving from Scotland at the P&O ferry terminal in the port at Larne. Source: Peter Morrison

Speaking on RTÉ Radio this morning, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney defended the Protocol by saying Brexit was the real problem, but also conceded “there are elements in terms of implementation that are causing real problems”.

“I think what what senior politicians need to do now is look at ways in which pragmatism can be applied to the implementation of the Protocol in the context of flexibility and grace periods where appropriate, but it has to be done within the context of the protocol itself.”

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‘Free us from the Protocol’

The DUP, on the other side, is calling for the Protocol to be abandoned completely. The party released a statement last night to ask for all checks in the Protocol to be called off. Here is the party’s five-point plan:

  • United message from unionists – free us from the Protocol
  • Oppose all Protocol related measures in the NI Assembly
  • Build support in parliament to free us from the Protocol
  • Launch parliamentary e-petition “Trigger Article 16 – We want unfettered GB-NI Trade”
  • North-South relationships will be impacted.

The inference from this plan is to have checks carried out on the Irish border, rather than the Irish Sea border. The DUP has called on Article 16 of the Protocol to be invoked in order to do this. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in the House of Commons today that he would consider taking this action in order to solve those problems.

“We will do everything we need to do, legislatively or by invoking Article 16 of the protocol, to ensure there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”

Though this would solve the disruption to GB-NI trade, it would cause huge problems on the island of Ireland, as it would almost certainly mean checks along the Irish border.

UK government calls for transition periods

GOVE Source: UK Government

In a letter sent by Michael Gove to the European Commission, he asked for the extension of the grace period (which is basically a transition period) for supermarkets and for customs checks on parcel deliveries until 1 January 2023, and to include more businesses in that cohort.

He also asked for a “permanent solution” to the chilled and processed meats ban, and some arrangements to solve issues around medicines, and pet travel.

“I must make clear that the UK Government seeks urgent resolution of these problems in the context of our obligations to seek commonly acceptable solutions,” he wrote in a letter published today.

“If it is not possible to agree a way forward in the way we propose, then the UK will consider using all instruments at its disposal.”

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