Northern Ireland Protocol: What did Boris Johnson say?
The Northern Ireland Protocol, part of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2020 Brexit deal with the European Union (EU), has been a source of tension.
Aimed at avoiding checks on goods crossing the border with the Republic of Ireland, the protocol means that Northern Ireland (NI) still follows some EU rules, while the rest of the UK does not.
In June 2022, Mr Johnson introduced the NI Protocol Bill to the House of Commons. It would give the UK government power to unilaterally override parts of the protocol.
In marked contrast to what he said about the protocol at the time he negotiated it, Mr Johnson said he wanted to “fix” it because it had been “upsetting the balance of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement [the peace deal signed in 1998]”.
The protocol bill is currently on hold while the UK and EU try to negotiate a new arrangement, but Mr Johnson is said to believe it would be a “great mistake” to drop it.
We looked at some of the claims Mr Johnson made about the protocol before he signed it.
‘There will be no border down the Irish Sea… over my dead body’ – 13 August 2020
In August 2020, Mr Johnson made this pledge – one he repeated several times.
But NI is being treated differently than the rest of the UK for the trade in goods, as the protocol said it would be. So, there is a trade border in the Irish Sea.
The DUP is deeply unhappy about this, and has used the slogan “No border in the Irish Sea”.
‘There will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI, or NI to GB’ – 8 December 2019
Mr Johnson said this on Sky News in response to a question about a leaked internal Treasury document.
On the effect of the protocol, the document warned “customs declarations and documentary and physical checks… will be highly disruptive to the NI economy”.
It highlighted potential constitutional implications, saying NI could be “symbolically separated” from Great Britain (GB).
Mr Johnson’s dismissal of the document’s main findings ran counter to the facts of the NI deal.
Parts of the Treasury document are now out of date (the possibility that tariffs or taxes could be charged on many goods crossing from GB to NI, for example, was removed by the signing of the new EU-UK free trade agreement in December 2020).
But it set out clearly that there would be a range of bureaucratic measures affecting GB-NI trade, including customs declarations, food safety checks, security checks, and regulatory checks on product standards.
The NI Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) says that SPS checks were carried out between 1 January 2021 and 19 February 2023 at NI ports on:
- 275,955 products of animal origin (mainly food)
- 14,853 consignments of live animals
- 19,627 consignments of plants and plant products
- 1,233 consignments of high risk food (not of animal origin)
- 319 consignments were rejected or refused entry
And this was despite grace periods being in place during which the full implementation of EU rules was suspended.
‘If somebody asks to do that, tell them to ring up the prime minister and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin’ – 8 November 2019
Mr Johnson was asked by an NI businessman whether he could tell his staff that they wouldn’t have to complete customs declarations for goods going from NI to GB. Mr Johnson said he could.
At the time, the terms of the protocol suggested export declarations would have to be filled in – a point acknowledged by then Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay.
In subsequent negotiations, though, the the need for formal NI-GB customs forms was waived – so this part of the prime minister’s promise was met.
‘It is fully compatible with the Good Friday agreement’ – 19 October 2019
Boris Johnson asserted this in response to a question in Parliament from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds who said the protocol “drives a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement” and urged Mr Johnson to reconsider the plan.
He reminded the prime minister that he had told the DUP conference in 2018 that “no British Conservative government could or should sign up” to an arrangement with regulatory checks and customs controls between GB and NI.
On 11 May 2022, at a press conference in Sweden, Mr Johnson said that the Good Friday Agreement meant that “things have got to command cross-community support. Plainly the Northern Ireland Protocol fails to do that and we need to sort it out”.
The protocol has a consent mechanism that means assembly members are asked to vote on it. The first consent vote is due in 2024.
‘A good arrangement… with the minimum possible bureaucratic consequences’ – 19 October 2019
Mr Johnson gave this assessment in the House of Commons shortly after agreeing the terms of the deal, urging MPs to back it.
But annexes to the protocol set out a long list of EU laws that would apply to NI, including laws dealing with products of animal origin and the EU customs code.
In addition to the leaked Treasury document, the government’s own impact assessment, published at the time, was clear. “Goods arriving in Northern Ireland, including from Great Britain,” it said, “would undergo regulatory checks in accordance with EU rules.”
One year on from the changes coming into effect, the NI Chambers of Commerce found that a very high proportion of members had experienced increases in prices of goods and services and the amount of time taken to transport goods.
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