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Northern Ireland Protocol Confusion Can Be Cleared Up With Flexible Border Approach

With a renewed emphasis on the EU-UK approach to Northern Ireland, we question why the United Kingdom seeks more escalation rather than constructive partnership. More importantly: Why not accept an 80 percent burden reduction benefiting people and companies during a crisis in the cost of living and War in Europe?

In May 2022, after the elections in Northern Ireland, the “row” over the correct implementation of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland (in the UK, the same is simply known as the Northern Ireland Protocol) between the United Kingdom and the European Union has kicked off again.

What is the NI Protocol in a nutshell?

Many feared that Brexit has jeopardised the peace that the Good Friday Agreement had brought to Northern Ireland. The NI Protocol is seen by the EU to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

Key to the solution: Measures in the Protocol intended to (1) eliminate the need for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic — which remains a member of the EU — and (2) customs inspections on that border after Brexit. However, that led to another border: NI Unionists contested that the Protocol established a border in the Irish Sea, leading Northern Ireland to be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.

So, today, the Northern Ireland Protocol remains the key controversial aspect of the Brexit accord concluded by the United Kingdom and the European Union in December 2020.

What’s the solution?

In mid-October 2021, the EU Commission proposed customised steps to help Northern Ireland inhabitants cope with Brexit and make the “border in the Irish Sea” more transparent. In order to reach these proposals, the EU Commission said that they had widely consulted politicians, corporations, and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland (like agri-food producers) to address local and commercial concerns. Even the UK Government Command Paper of July 2021 was incooperated in the EU Commission proposals.

The UK has rejected proposals by the EU

The United Kingdom opposes EU efforts to address the Northern Ireland Protocol. In May 2022, eight months after the initial proposal was made and laid “on ice”, the UK stated the need to be “forced to act" if the EU did not demonstrate the "required flexibility" about the protocol.

Yet, if pressed, publically, the government ministers cannot or want provide any detail about what these additional “required flexibilities” (as supposed to the ones detailed and offered below) are and why the October 21 proposals of the EU (see below) were unreasonable.

We only seem to know that the UK ministers said that the protocol posed the "biggest barrier" to the formation of a new power-sharing government in Northern Ireland after the May 2022 elections.

However, what exactly is the problem, apart from scrapping it all together based on political (Could NI break away from the UK because of the Protocol and wish to become Irish?) rather than practical grounds (“There is a high cost associated with border controls that makes live burdensome and disadvantaged businesses”) is unclear (at least to me).

What is in the October 2021 proposals of the EU?

The EU Commission suggested a range of practical actions to address Northern Irish citizens' and companies' concerns. These ideas were built on a June 2021 package that streamlined UK live animal imports. The solution provided for a novel approach to implementing the Protocol and simplifying commodities movement between the UK and NI. At the same time, GB products would be kept out of the EU's Single Market without having to put a border between Northern and Southern Ireland, respecting the Belfast Agreement.

80% reduction in controls = Cost Savings and Delay Reduction for British Businesses

The new proposals would have meant a reduction of sanitary and phytosanitary (addressing public, plant, and animal health concerns) inspections by 80%. This is a very significant proposal as these controls and associated paperwork are one of the key reasons for delays and costs in GB-NI Trade.

The impact of such simplifications could be felt immediately for both English and Northern Irish businesses: Especially for a large variety of retail items transiting from the UK to Northern Ireland, this implies fewer official inspections (I repeat - about 80%).

It is a no brainer. To me, there are few practical reasons not to accept such proposals, when they can provide immediate cost and paperwork relief to businesses. Do you know of any? Leave comments below.

At the time of a significant cost of living crisis and after the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland has spoken in favour of maintaining the NI Protocol, it is not time for pragmatism to prevail over ideology, for once?

What has been proposed in October 21 in a nutshell?

The package proposed further flexibilities in four areas of

  1. food, plant and animal health,

  2. customs,

  3. medicines and

  4. engagement with Northern Irish stakeholders.

Solutions in four key areas

There are four non-papers (i.e. non-legislative texts) covering the following areas:

1. A bespoke solution for Northern Ireland on food, plant and animal health

This solution would result in a Northern Ireland-specific public, plant, and animal health solution (abbreviated "SPS"). In effect, this entails substantially simplified certification and a large decrease (about 80 percent) of official inspections for a huge array of retail items going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland for consumption. This is in addition to the measures proposed by the EU on 30 June to ease the transfer of live animals from the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland.

Download Proposal

SPS Proposal NI I Protocol
Download PDF • 581KB

2. Flexible customs formalities to facilitate the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland – 50% reduction in paperwork

This solution includes actions that will simplify and streamline customs procedures and formalities. It will decrease in half the amount of paperwork required to transport products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. This is also subject to safeguards, such as the United Kingdom's commitment to provide full and real-time access to IT systems, a review and termination clause, and the implementation of appropriate monitoring and enforcement measures by the United Kingdom's customs and market surveillance authorities.

Download Proposal

Customs Proposal NI I Protocol
Download PDF • 321KB

Express Lane

Together, the customised solutions for SPS and customs regulations will establish a "Express Lane" for the flow of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, while also offering a rigorous monitoring and enforcement system to safeguard the EU' Single Market.

3. Enhanced engagement with Northern Ireland Stakeholders and Authorities

It is hoped that these ideas would help stakeholders and authorities in Northern Ireland communicate about the Protocol and related EU initiatives. This would promote openness while safeguarding the UK's constitutional order. Create a structured dialogue between Northern Ireland's stakeholders (government, civil society and businesses) and the EU. Organizing expert committees to assess key EU acts relevant to the Protocol's implementation would be required. Stakeholders from Northern Ireland will be invited to Specialized Committee meetings. It will also deepen the Northern Ireland Assembly's cooperation with the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly. A website will also be built to give clear and thorough information on Northern Ireland's EU regulations.

Download Proposal

Stakeholder Engagement I NI proposal
Download PDF • 496KB

4. Uninterrupted security of supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland for the long-term

As a consequence of this plan, British pharmaceutical businesses that service the Northern Irish market will be able to maintain their regulatory duties in their existing locations. Even though Northern Ireland is now the third country to the EU, Great Britain may continue to operate as a centre for the delivery of generic medications to the region. This ensures the continued supply of pharmaceuticals from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Before finalising its proposal to change current regulations, the Commission will engage in further consultations with the United Kingdom and other stakeholders. This proposal calls on the EU to modify its own drug regulations..

Download Proposal

Medicines Proposal Ni I Protocol
Download PDF • 350KB

What happens if the UK unilaterally withdraws from the Northern Ireland Protocol or if Article 16 is triggered?

Article 16 of the protocol is a safeguard provision that allows any party to adopt unilateral "strictly essential" actions if the execution of the agreement "leads to substantial economic, sociological, or environmental challenges that are likely to continue or trade diversion." A cycle of escalations and retaliations can ensue, which may result in the suspension of portions of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. This, in turn, would reinforce the border between the EU and the United Kingdom and has the potential to significantly raise red tape and customs duties, impeding commerce and the movement of products. It should be avoided under all circumstances.


The Northern Ireland Protocol is threatened by UK political ambitions and infighting. The NI protocol continues to be constantly politicised, ignoring the impact on companies and individuals and not recognising the enormous contribution it currently makes to peace in Northern Ireland and allowing for North-South Cooperation to continue. Most importantly from a trade-in goods perspective, where practical alternatives exist to reduce red tape and customs/SPS procedures, they should be implemented without delay. The NI Protocol should be given a chance to operate for Northern Ireland's people and companies, particularly whilst we are in the midst of military agression in Europe and citizens experience a severe "cost of living" crisis with high levels of inflation leading to exporting food, feed and energy prices. Companies and individuals don't have time for politics. Every time legislators disagree, Northern Ireland loses a chance for prosperity and stability. Let it go! Take the 80% red tape cuts! Move on!

Other Documents

UK Command Paper of July 2021

Command Paper - Northern_Ireland_Protocol - July 21
Download PDF • 249KB

June 21 Easements

These measures come in addition to the package that was presented in June 2021, which facilitates the movement of live animals from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

June 21 Easements I-NI-Protocol
Download PDF • 45KB

How we can help?

In order to ensure that our clients in the United Kingdom have an easy time crossing the border, we assist them in the interpretation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and file their customs declarations into Northern Ireland on their behalf. Get in touch with us as soon as possible so we can discuss the ways in which we may help you.

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