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The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is an integral part of the Agreement on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU, an international treaty agreed between the UK and the EU setting out how the UK’s exit from the EU would work. Its main provisions came into effect on 1 January 2021.
The Protocol was jointly designed and agreed by the UK and EU specifically to protect the Good Friday Agreement and address many of the challenges Brexit posed to the island of Ireland.
The Protocol fully and expressly recognises the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. It maintains the necessary conditions for North-South cooperation (Strand 2) of the Agreement, which ensures ‘no diminution of rights, safeguards, or equality of opportunity’.
The Protocol protects one of the most significant gains of the peace process by avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, while preserving the integrity of the EU Single Market and Ireland’s place within it. It also safeguards the all-island economy, another gain of the peace process that benefits people and businesses, North and South.
Trade in Goods
As well as leaving the European Union, the UK is no longer part of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.
This means that any EU business that moves goods from, to, or through the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) is subject to a range of new customs formalities and other regulatory requirements, including Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) controls in the case of food, animal and plant products.
These changes do not apply with respect to trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland (or between Northern Ireland and other EU Member States), in either direction.
The Protocol provides that Northern Ireland is legally part of the UK customs territory, but is subject to certain specific provisions of EU law agreed with the British Government.
These EU provisions are effectively those necessary to avoid a hard border on the island, and include the Union Customs Code and EU legislation necessary to protect the integrity and operation of the Single Market in goods.
Under the Protocol, no new checks or controls apply to goods moving between Ireland and Northern Ireland in either direction.
This means that goods from Northern Ireland benefit from free and open access to both the EU Single Market and the rest of the UK’s internal market, which combined comprise an unparalleled market of over half a billion people.
Necessary checks and controls (including on SPS goods) take place on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom and other third countries. Some of these checks and controls already took place prior to Brexit. As a result of consistent engagement in Northern Ireland, the European Commission has made a number of proposals to ensure the Protocol works as smoothly as possible for people and business in Northern Ireland.
The rules around trade in goods between the UK and the European Union (including Ireland) were agreed within the separate Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which was agreed between both parties in December 2020.
Other Important Parts of the Protocol
EU law applicable in Northern Ireland
The provisions of EU law made applicable in Northern Ireland by the Protocol are contained in a series of annexes to the Protocol itself. Where these provisions of EU law are amended or replaced, those changes will also apply to Northern Ireland.
Where the EU adopts a new act that falls within the scope of the Protocol - for example, concerning the free movement of goods - it is for the UK and the EU to decide in the Joint Committee (the body that has general responsibility for decision-making concerning the implementation of the Protocol) whether the new act should be added to the Protocol.
Managing the Protocol
The implementation of the Protocol is overseen by a set of dedicated EU-UK committees:
Improving the operation of the Protocol
Recognising and responding to legitimate concerns and challenges for people and businesses in Northern Ireland, the European Commission has put forward various proposals to improve the implementation of the Protocol. These are the direct result of engagement by the Commission with stakeholders in Northern Ireland, including businesses and those in the Unionist community.
These include proposals relating to easing customs and SPS goods movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as well as developing further Northern Ireland stakeholder engagement on the implementation of the Protocol. In April 2022, the EU adopted legislation to ensure the continued long-term supply of medicines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Further information on EU-UK discussions on the Protocol is available from the European Commission.