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The Northern Ireland Protocol

Following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the two sides drew up a Withdrawal Agreement (WA) that set out how the UK’s exit would work. This Agreement came into force on 31 January 2020.

The WA is separate from the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) that sets out the UK-EU future relationship.

The Northern Ireland Protocol (the Protocol) is an integral part of the WA. The Protocol sets out Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit relationship with both the EU and Great Britain (the rest of the UK).

Trade in goods under the Protocol

The Protocol states that Northern Ireland (NI) remains part of the UK customs territory and so NI will be included in UK free trade agreements. UK authorities are responsible for implementing the Protocol in both GB and NI.

However, more significantly the Protocol states that NI must follow the EU’s rules for bringing goods in and out of the EU (the customs code) and many EU single market rules for goods, while GB will set its own customs and regulatory rules. This allows for the free movement of goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland and the rest of the EU.

This approach necessitates implementing new checks and controls for goods moving both from Great Britain to Northern Ireland but also, to a lesser extent, from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. This is often referred to as “putting the border in the Irish Sea”.

Issues and negotiations

The full details of how the Protocol would operate were not decided by the EU-UK Joint Committee, set up under the WA, until December 2020. This gave little time for business in NI to prepare for the new regime. The EU & UK agreed therefore, to temporarily suspend the full application of EU law to NI that mandated checks and controls to several parts of the Protocol, in a series of what became known as “grace periods”.

Some of the most consequential of these were:

  • a three-month grace period for supermarkets and their suppliers, for EU agri-food rules;
  • a six-month grace period for supermarkets for EU rules on certain types of chilled meats, such as sausages;
  • a one-year grace period for implementing in full the EU’s rules on testing and selling human and veterinary medicines.The UK unilaterally extended the three-month agri-food grace period in March 2021, triggering an EU enforcement mechanism, and raising tensions between the two sides. In June 2021, the UK then asked the EU to extend the six-month grace period for fresh meats, which the EU has granted for a further three months, alongside several other flexibilities.
  • These issues are explored further in the introduction to the debate pack.
  • The UK has since asked for several other flexibilities in areas such as steel quotas, the movement of livestock, the movement of parcels, and the movement of pets.

The UK has since asked for several other flexibilities in areas such as steel quotas, the movement of livestock, the movement of parcels, and the movement of pets.

The UK unilaterally extended the three-month agri-food grace period in March 2021, triggering an EU enforcement mechanism, and raising tensions between the two sides. In June 2021, the UK then asked the EU to extend the six-month grace period for fresh meats, which the EU has granted for a further three months, alongside several other flexibilities.

These issues are explored further in the introduction to the debate pack.


Documents to download