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Three steps the Truss government can take for a Northern Ireland protocol deal

If the UK government is serious about getting a deal this time around, there are three things it must do first.  

Liz Truss on the steps of Downing Street

With renewed impetus for a UK-EU agreement on the protocol, Jess Sargeant says the UK must take the necessary steps to prepare for a deal 

There is (finally) some cause for optimism about the Northern Ireland Protocol. Technical talks between the UK and the EU restarted last week, having been put on ice last February, as both sides put renewed impetus into seeking an agreed solution to the challenges posed by the protocol.  

The mood music has improved since Liz Truss became prime minister. The NIO minister and former ERG chair Steve Baker acknowledged that he and others did not always act in a way to inspire trust from the EU. [1] Meanwhile the former and future Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, conceded that “the protocol as it was originally designed was a little too strict”. [2]  

These comments are significant, demonstrating the kind of understanding of each other’s perspectives that have been missing from discussions so far – an understanding which is absolutely essential to getting a deal. Putting the blame game to one side, at least for now, paves the way for more constructive discussion, but it is far too early to celebrate. Ultimately, the success of negotiations will depend on the ability of both sides to show flexibility, creativity and to compromise. But if the UK government is serious about getting a deal this time around, there are three things it must do first.  

The UK government should decide what it will prioritise and where it will compromise 

When it comes to the protocol, there is a long list of issues on which the UK and the EU disagree. In some areas, there is a clear landing zone for an agreement. The two sides’ proposals for reducing the frequency of customs and regulatory checks are not miles apart – although there is much detail to develop. But on other issues, like the role of the European Court of Justice, it is difficult to see a way forward.   

Ultimately, the UK government is not going to be able to get everything it wants. Ministers will need to think carefully about which areas to prioritise, and where it might be willing to make concessions.  

The UK government should put its plans for unilateral action on hold 

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is still a source of considerable tension. The UK insists that the legislation is just an insurance policy, but the closer the bill gets to the statute book the closer it risks undermining any trust and goodwill the UK has built up over the past few weeks and, ultimately, collapsing the talks. 

The UK position appears to be that while it will not pause the passage of the bill, it will not accelerate it either. The government is expected to face significant opposition when the bill gets to the Lords this week, which may (perhaps helpfully) slow the bill’s progress.   

But Truss will remain under pressure from the hard-line Brexiteers – very much her core supporters – and the DUP to take unilateral action if it looks like a UK-EU deal won’t deliver everything they’ve asked for. But she must ensure that UK-EU talks have the breathing room they need to be successful, and for the time being, take the threats off the table.  

The UK government needs to get the unionist community on board with a compromise 

At the DUP party conference last weekend, the party’s leader, Jeffery Donaldson, issued a stark warning: 

“....either the prime minister delivers the provisions of the Protocol Bill by legislation or by negotiation and ensures that our place in the United Kingdom is restored... or there will be no basis to re-enter Stormont.” [3] 

In introducing the Protocol Bill the UK government raised expectations about what changes to the Irish Sea border can realistically be achieved. It has set itself a high bar of the near-total elimination of trading friction between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a bar which any UK-EU deal will almost certainly fail to clear.  

The prospects of being able to restore the Northern Ireland Executive before the deadline of 28 October are slim – so another election is on the cards. If that doesn’t resolve the impasse, Northern Ireland could face an extended period without any political leadership – leaving it struggling to grapple with the cost of living crisis. The UK government needs to start work immediately to manage the unionist community’s expectations and work out how to best to sell an agreement.  

Getting a deal with the EU on the protocol will not be easy, but not getting one is a much worse outcome. If the UK and the EU cannot find a compromise and the UK proceeds with unilateral action, a major UK-EU confrontation – and potential trade war – is on the cards. This would bring more pain on the UK economy, already in turmoil because of a loss of market confidence in the government. With the war in Ukraine at a pivotal moment, the US administration has warned against UK-EU “flare-ups” at a time when “transatlantic unity, European unity, is more important than ever”. [4] The UK needs to do a deal and should take the necessary steps to do so.  

  1.  ‘Tory MP Steve Baker apologises to Ireland and EU for behaviour during Brexit’, 2 October 2022,
  2. ‘Northern Ireland Protocol ‘a little too strict’, admits Varadkar’, 6 October 2022,
  3.  ‘DUP Conference 2022 - Leader's Speech’, 8 October 2022, 
  4.  ‘US urges no more ‘flare ups’ from UK over Northern Ireland’, 
Truss government
Public figures
Liz Truss
Institute for Government

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