The fragility of Northern Ireland politics continues to prove problematic in dealing with Brexit. The on-going efforts of the UK government to redefine the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed with the EU last December is testament to that. Such efforts may be politically appealing in advance of UK local elections next May, but they too are proving problematic.

In terms of trading, generally under half of UK exports are to the EU with over half of UK imports coming from the EU. On-going and additional uncertainties don’t help that trading relationship. In terms of relationships, EU politicians are increasingly critical of the UK engagement and are impatient to finalise Brexit arrangements in light of other significant priorities. In terms of peace, the Northern Ireland peace agreement has held for the past 23 years however not without difficulty as both sides of the political spectrum there continue to struggle with each other. While no divorce is easy, this one is proving particularly troublesome.

Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister who drove Britain’s wartime strategy, put forward the idea of a United States of Europe in Zurich in 1946 after the end of the Second World War. The history of the UK involvement from Churchill to Cameron is a topic of its own and the full impact of Brexit on the EU has yet to unfold. Suffice to say that the European Union envisioned by Churchill, has, since its inception systematically tackled the issues that had destabilised democracy within Europe in the decades prior to the World Wars. It helped maintain peace in a war torn Europe, as Churchill and the other architects of the European Union had hoped. Despite not being a signatory to the 1998 Good Friday Northern Ireland peace agreement, reached between the governments of the UK and Ireland, the European Union has demonstrated a steady commitment to peace in the region, most recently in the Brexit negotiations.

The formal Brexit negotiations began in March 2017, over four and a half years ago. The aim was to agree an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU. Included in those negotiations were a number of Protocols to deal with specific issues relating to Cyprus, Gibraltar and Northern Ireland and new trading arrangements between the UK and the EU post Brexit. The protocol on Northern Ireland has been the trickiest, with the key sticking point being the land border between the UK and the EU in Ireland. A border down the Irish Sea rather than border posts over the 200+ small roads between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland, was the eventual compromise. The Irish Sea became to de facto EU/UK border. This gave Northern Ireland the unique advantage of being a trading part of the EU and the UK. While welcomed by Northern Irish business and farming organisations, it is seen by unionists as a threat to their position within the UK.

The transition period for the UK withdrawal from the EU was agreed under the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and UK last December. The Northern Ireland Protocol then came into force on January 1 2021. Since then there have been supply chain difficulties between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as goods coming from the UK are subject to EU checks to ensure they comply with EU requirements. Increased checks, paperwork and delivery delays have stressed suppliers and customers both sides of the Irish Sea, with imports of medicines and chilled products attracting particular controversy. UK authorised medicines coming into Northern Ireland would have to meet EU requirements. This adds expense for manufacturers, particularly of generic medicines more common in the UK, in supplying the relatively small Northern Ireland market of less than 2 million people. 910 medicines are reported by the Northern Ireland Department of Health as planned for withdrawal from Northern Ireland in consequence.

There have been attempts to address these implementation problems. Last June the EU announced a package of measures to alleviate the difficulties. Despite no longer being aligned to EU rules, the movement of UK only authorized medicines to Northern Ireland was allowed provided those medicines stayed within Northern Ireland and were not distributed further to the EU market. Easier movement of cattle from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was facilitated by the relaxation of retagging requirements. Also the movement of chilled meats from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was, subject to having health certificates and appropriate labelling, allowed by extending the existing grace period by three months to the end of September 2021.

Under UK pressure to deliver more, the latest proposals this month from the EU give further flexibilities. According to the EU, this creates of an “Express Lane” for goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, subject to “robust monitoring and enforcement” by the UK authorities.

The proposals include:

  • simpler certification requirements and further removal of checks on a range of retail goods. This is anticipated to reduce goods checks by 80%.
  • expanding the scope of ‘goods not at risk’ of entering the EU.
  • halving the customs formalities so that only basic information of invoice value and parties will be required by the customs authorities
  • pharmaceutical companies in Great Britain can keep all their regulatory functions where currently located, when supplying the Northern Irish market with UK authorized medicines.
  • placing medicines centrally approved in the EU, on the Northern Ireland market without any further formalities. If the UK regulatory authority, approves a drug quicker than the EMA, the supply gap may be bridged for individual patients under the direct responsibility of a doctor, under compassionate use exemptions. This happened recently in the supply of vaccine to Northern Irish patients pending EU approval.
  • greater dialogue between Northern Ireland stakeholders and the Commission “to discuss relevant aspects of Union measures that are important for the implementation of the Protocol”.

The EU has ruled out revising the oversight role of the European Court of Justice on the Protocol.

The UK and the EU will now discuss these new proposals.