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The UK government must take responsibility for making the Northern Ireland protocol work

Making the government’s protocol work in Northern Ireland would help reduce current tensions

Making the government’s protocol work in Northern Ireland would help reduce current tensions, argues Jess Sargeant

The causes of the recent riots in Northern Ireland were complex – a mix of insecurity around the unionist identity in the wake of Brexit together with wider demographic changes, anger following the police decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin politicians who broke lockdown rules to attend a funeral, and criminal gangs encouraging young people to cause trouble.

Brexit is undeniably a factor. Even if not the primary cause, the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol – signed as part of the UK–EU Withdrawal Agreement to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland but instead creating a border in the Irish Sea – is behind some of the tensions. For that the UK government should take responsibility and act to diffuse, not inflame, growing tensions within Northern Ireland.

The UK government must commit to making the deal it agreed work, while also seeking solutions to the problems it creates; it must give assurances that future divergence will not create further barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain; and finally, it must work with the Irish government to support the executive as this crucial time.

The UK government must make clear that there is no alternative to the protocol

Boris Johnson accepted the protocol as a way to allow him to negotiate a distant relationship with the EU for the rest of the UK. That inevitably meant a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea. The prime minister wanted to have his cake and eat it, and the government should own the deal it signed up to.

Instead, the UK government’s approach to allaying unionist concerns over the deal it negotiated has been either to deny the reality of what it means – like when the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, insisted there was no Irish Sea border — or to threaten to override it unilaterally, as it did when it introduced the UK Internal Market Bill. This dishonesty has according to a Northern Ireland’s justice minister, Alliance MLA Naomi Long, fuelled unionist anger, [1]  and demonstrated a lack of respect for the rule of law.

Years of UK–EU negotiations, and countless trade experts have yet to find a workable alternative to the protocol. Rejecting it outright would create a hard border on the island of Ireland, causing yet more instability for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. It really is the only game in town. The UK government must be honest about the consequences of the deal it signed and commit – through both words and actions – to making it work.

The UK government must now work constructively with the EU

The EU must be a partner in making the protocol work – and there are many issues still to be resolved. Some of the most extensive checks required by the protocol are not yet in place. Back in December, the UK and EU agreed a three-month grace period for agri-food certificates for supermarket and their suppliers.

The UK’s unilateral decision to extend this period until October – when it came to an end last week – sparked strong condemnation and legal action from the EU. David Frost, the minister responsible and the prime minister’s former Brexit negotiator, may think that these kinds of confrontational tactics are the best way to extract concessions from the EU – but high-profile clashes may also escalate the rising tensions within Northern Ireland.

The UK–EU Joint Committee – the body responsible for overseeing the implementation of the protocol — appears to be close to an agreement over allowing more time to implement checks. This is welcome, but further delays will not address the underlying concerns raised by Northern Ireland businesses about the future viability of supply chains across the Irish Sea.

The UK and the EU need to demonstrate that they can work together to find solutions to the problems posed by the protocol. That will require some flexibility on both sides – the EU must consider whether the current arrangements are proportionate to the risk posed to the single market, and the UK must consider whether friction in the Irish Sea is a price worth paying for the complete absence of regulatory constraints on GB. The protocol itself was a compromise. It should not be allowed to fail completely because neither side is prepared to bend a little more.

The UK’s domestic policy choices could fuel further tension if not managed well

The protocol could create further challenges if the UK and the EU diverge post-Brexit. Northern Ireland will be required to keep pace with EU law in certain areas like customs, agriculture, and product requirements – minor changes to regulations could become potential flashpoints for conflict in the Executive if they create further barriers to trade with Great Britain.

Northern Ireland will have no choice in whether to apply relevant changes, but the UK government (and in some cases the devolved administrations) will have a choice on how their own regulation should respond. Divergence is not inevitable, it is a political choice; in proposals accompanying the Irish backstop arrangements, Theresa May committed to maintaining alignment in those areas where Northern Ireland was bound by EU law, to “ensure everything possible had been done to avoid any additional preventable barriers within the UK internal market”.[2] Every time the Johnson government decides on a new approach, it needs to think about what it will mean for Northern Ireland.

To reassure the unionist community and decrease the risk of future flare-ups, the UK government needs to make a firm commitment that it will not let Northern Ireland drift further from the UK’s internal market – even if this acts as a constraint on its own ambition.

The UK – and Ireland – need to offer visible support to the power-sharing executive

Northern Ireland’s system of power-sharing government has never been easy to make work, even when there are few external pressures: Brexit has reopened longstanding constitutional questions and made finding the necessary trust and will for co-operation even harder. The elections in 2022 will determine the composition of the Northern Ireland assembly when it votes on whether to consent to the protocol in 2024.

Political disagreement over the protocol could have unforeseen consequences, like stalling progress in unrelated areas like health, education, and Northern Ireland’s recovery from Covid. The executive was supposed to agree a programme for government when it returned in January 2020 – 15 months on, there is still no sign of it. The executive may not have collapsed, but it is not functioning well.

The governments in London and in Dublin need to work together to help political leaders in Northern Ireland to set a positive future course – and try to demonstrate that some of the language both have used about the protocol offering Northern Ireland “the best of both worlds” is not just empty rhetoric.


[1] O'Carroll L, ‘Dishonesty’ over Brexit fuelled loyalist anger, says Stormont minister, The Guardian, 7 April 2021,

[2] HM Government, UK government commitments to Northern Ireland and its integral place in the United Kingdom, 9 January 2019,


Country (international)
European Union
United Kingdom
Northern Ireland
Institute for Government

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