Future of the Northern Ireland Protocol in Question on the Eve of the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement

Future of the Northern Ireland Protocol in Question on the Eve of the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement

Olivia Gulley

On January 31, 2020, The United Kingdom officially left the European Union.[1] During Withdrawal Agreement negotiations between the UK and the EU, the Northern Ireland Protocol—a trade agreement involving the goods crossing the board between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—was created.[2] The Northern Ireland Protocol has been a source of tension between the UK and the EU since it was implemented in 2021.[3] Now the protocol is being renegotiated in hopes to continue the peace that has existed on the island of Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement was reached twenty-five years ago.[4]

In 2019, Brexit negotiations protecting the Northern Ireland peace deal, the Good Friday Agreement, was a top priority.[5] The Northern Ireland Protocol was created to accomplish the goal of maintaining an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.[6] The protocol allowed for the rest of the UK to withdraw from EU regulations but kept Northern Ireland subject to some EU regulatory standards on goods[7] and required goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK to be checked upon arrival at Northern Ireland ports.[8] This allowed for goods to still flow freely across the Irish border and maintain an open border between the UK and Ireland which has been in place since 1998.[9]

The Democratic Unionist Party (“DUP”) is Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British party and is against the Northern Ireland Protocol in its current state.[10]  The DUP believes that conducting checks on goods upon entry to Northern Ireland places “an effective border across the Irish Sea” and “undermines Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.”[11] Their opposition is so strong that the DUP has held the Northern Ireland Assembly hostage, refusing to allow a government to be formed in protest of the protocol.[12]

In June of 2022, the EU announced legal action against the UK for not upholding parts of the agreement and called on the UK to return to negotiations.[13] The EU has signaled they will not budge on the specific rules within the protocol but is willing to negotiate how the rules will apply to Northern Ireland.[14] DUP politicians have stated they want to see a new “green lane” opened for goods destined only for Northern Ireland which will no longer need to be checked.[15] Goods with an end destination in the Republic of Ireland will go through a “red lane” and be subject to checks.[16] Senior British officials have indicated that after negotiations, the European Court of Justice may still continue to have jurisdiction over some of Northern Ireland’s trade arrangements.[17] However, pro-Brexit MPs in Parliament have stated they are not interested in a state of affairs where a EU court still has jurisdiction within the UK.[18]

What does the future look like?

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has stated that the Republic of Ireland is willing to “show flexibility and to make compromises”[19] but the DUP remains firm in their refusal to form a government until a new deal that meets their requirements is met.[20] Alongside the DUP’s refusal to govern other the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents loyalist paramilitary groups, has warned against the current protocol staying in place.[21] Loyalist Communities Council chairman David Campbell said he would be concerned about the possibility of violence targeting the Republic of Ireland if the Northern Ireland protocol negotiations do not go the way the DUP and unionists want.[22]

This weekend, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is meeting with EU leaders to discuss the future of the agreement.[23] Whether they will reach a resolution this weekend, or what the resolution will be, still remains unseen. However, the EU and UK have said that they will “work rapidly” to reach a deal before the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 2023.[24] Regardless of the outcome, these negotiations serve as a staunch reminder that threats to the peace and stability that the island of Ireland has experienced in the twenty-five years since the Good Friday Agreement are always looming.


[1] EU exit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, Nidirect, https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/eu-exit-and-northern-ireland-protocol (last visited Feb. 15, 2023).

[2] Id.

[3] Jessica Parker & John Campbell, Brexit: Northern Ireland Protocol deal could be sealed next week, BBC (Feb. 15, 2023), https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-64652747.

[4] Tom Edgington, Brexit: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?, BBC (Jan. 10, 2023), https://www.bbc.com/news/explainers-53724381.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. (stating that protecting the Good Friday Agreement peace was “an absolute priority”); see generally Paul Teague, Brexit and the Political Economy of Ireland 30-52 (Routledge 2021) (explaining how the open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland helped usher in an era of peace and stability in a region that had before been plagued by violence from sectarian para-military groups).

[7] Shawn Pogatchnik, Irish PM: ‘Room for changes’ to Northern Ireland protocol, Politico (Jan. 3, 2023, 12:24 PM), https://www.politico.eu/article/ireland-pm-leo-varadkar-light-touch-trade-rules-for-northern-ireland-could-fix-mistakes-in-brexit-deal/.

[8] Edgington, supra note 4.

[9] Teague, supra note 6.

[10] Alistair Smout, Speculation on N. Ireland Protocol Deal Premature, DUP Leader Says, U.S. News (Feb. 15, 2023, 5:30 AM), https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2023-02-15/speculation-on-northern-ireland-protocol-deal-premature-dup-leader-says (explaining that the DUP has “[B]oycotted power-sharing with Irish nationalists in the region’s devolved parliament over opposition to the current protocol.”).

[11] Parker & Campbell, supra note 3.

[12] Id.

[13] Edgington, supra note 4.

[14] Id. (stating that the EU is willing to reduce customs and checks on goods, reduce the amount of paperwork, and relax rules regarding chilled meats specifically).

[15] George Parker et al., Rishi Sunak to meet EU leaders to try to finalise Brexit deal, Financial Times (Feb. 14, 2023), https://www.ft.com/content/d9a7aa45-5e5e-4e9e-b878-3d1a3c1aa8ad.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Pogatchnik, supra note 7.

[20] Parker, supra note 14.

[21] Amanda Ferguson & Conor Humphries, Northern Ireland unionists face historic choice as EU, UK near protocol deal, Reuters (Feb. 10, 2023, 4:31 PM), https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/nireland-unionists-face-historic-choice-eu-uk-near-protocol-deal-2023-02-10/.

[22] Id. (quoting David Campbell saying that “My worry would be a new generation coming forward that have a much more malign intent and would be looking at targets in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere. People will look where they feel the blame lies.”).

[23] Parker, supra note 14.

[24] Edgington, supra note 4.