Who supports the Northern Ireland Protocol - and who wants to tear it up?

Battle lines drawn as UK government prepares to unveil controversial plans to override key Brexit provision

Unionists vehemently opposed the Northern Ireland Protocol
(Image credit: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images)

The government is to set out its highly controversial plan to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol this afternoon as Brexit once again returns to the top of the political agenda.

The bill, detailing legal changes that allow ministers to rip up parts of the protocol, has long been touted by Boris Johnson and his hardline Brexit allies on both sides of the Irish Sea. But “with the prospect of opposition from both wings of the prime minister’s own party and a chorus of criticism which views the plans as likely to be illegal, its publication is only the first salvo in what is likely to be a very ugly battle”, said The Guardian.

Here The Week examines who wants to keep the Northern Ireland Protocol and who wants to tear it up.

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DUP

The Democratic Unionist Party has been among the most vocal opponents of the Northern Ireland Protocol. It claims the provision, which effectively places the regulatory border between the UK and EU down the Irish Sea rather than on the land border between Northern Ireland and the republic to the south, fundamentally undermines the integrity of the UK.

Since the Stormont elections in May, which made Sinn Féin the largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time, the DUP has blocked the formation of an executive over its opposition to the protocol, signed in 2019 as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

In an email sent to government officials and leaked to PoliticsHome, Naomi Long, leader of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, said “only one” political party in Northern Ireland – the DUP – had been “central to the preparation of this legislation”.

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The Times reported that while they are willing to back the DUP over changes to the protocol, “ministers have privately told unionist politicians that they must re-establish full power-sharing with Sinn Fein before the bill is pushed through the House of Lords, where it is expected to face opposition”.

The Tory Party

Divisions within the Tory Party over the bill have only intensified since Boris Johnson narrowly won a vote of confidence in his leadership last week.

Freddie Hayward in The New Statesman reported that the bill is “said to have been written with input from members of the European Research Group – the band of Conservative MPs who have consistently lobbied for a hard Brexit”.

Opponents within the party are also preparing for a fight, accusing the government of pandering to the DUP while risking breaking international law and starting a trade war with the EU during a cost-of-living crisis.

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A leaked briefing paper being shared among Conservative MPs and reported by the Financial Times described the move as “damaging to everything the UK and Conservatives stand for”, claiming it could be as devastating for the reputation of the party as the Iraq war was for Labour.

“Many Tory MPs see the rabble-rousing over Brexit as a lurch to the right designed to shore up support for the prime minister after last Monday’s damaging confidence vote,” said The Independent. “But the decision to push ahead with the protocol legislation risks alienating more moderate MPs, especially in Lib Dem-facing seats in the south of England.”

EU

The EU has warned the UK against unilaterally changing the protocol, saying it would undermine trust between the two sides. The Daily Telegraph has reported that the UK bill is “expected to prompt fury from Brussels”.

Counter to claims the EU is being “disingenuous” over the protocol, the BBC said that the bloc has proposed reducing checks on products coming into Northern Ireland, but not eliminating them altogether. In exchange, it wants safeguards to stop goods moving from Great Britain into the Republic of Ireland such as the UK giving the EU full access to its IT systems.

While it appears willing to make concessions, the EU has dismissed any attempt by the UK to remove the European Court of Justice’s role from the protocol.

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Republic of Ireland

The Irish Examiner reported that the government in Dublin is “furious” at British plans.

Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney echoed opposition to the deal from European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič after both held short calls with UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Monday.

A spokesman for Coveney said it “marks a particular low point in the UK’s approach to Brexit, especially as Secretary Truss has not engaged with negotiations with the EU in any meaningful way since February”, the Belfast Telegraph reported.

“Far from fixing problems, this legislation will create a whole new set of uncertainties and damage relationships,” they added.

Speaking to Sky News, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said the protocol was working as it was intended and claimed Tory proposals to breach international law would “create huge, huge damage to the northern economy, to the Irish economy.

“They propose to breach international law and are on an agenda of undermining, attacking and damaging the Good Friday Agreement,” she added.

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