The Government’s NIP options

Government discussions on the Northern Ireland Protocol have resolved into three options

The Government has had rolling internal discussions recently on what to do with the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Withdrawal Agreement signed by Boris Johnson in 2019.

I’m told all options are being considered but there are roughly three schools of thought. The first is to keep implementing the Protocol and hope that the EU can be persuaded to agree to roll over some of the grace periods which will force Northern Irish businesses to decouple from the rest of the UK economy and source supplies instead from the EU’s single market. The grace period, for example, on meat exports expired last week after the EU refused to extend it. Ministers in favour of this view are convinced that the difficulty in changing the agreement would be too high a price to pay. This option is favoured by Michael Gove.

The second option is to seek to renegotiate the Protocol with the EU in a way that the UK can’t be accused of breaking International Law. Ministers in favour of this argument say that a unilateral approach would seriously dent the UK’s international agreements but they are confident they can persuade the EU to move to a system that protects the EU internal market without causing the large disruption in trade between the UK and Northern Ireland. This is somewhat along the lines of the ERG strategy which is to ask the EU to switch to “mutual enforcement” of goods. So policing your exports and ignoring your imports: an agreed fudge very much in keeping with Ulster’s much touted quarter century long “peace process”. As the EU’s refusal to even contemplate extending the grace period for meat products shows, however, this approach finds no favour with Brussels.

The third option being considered is to unilaterally rip up the agreement, stop all intra-UK checks of goods across the Irish Sea and let the EU enforce their own border with the UK if they want to, although if the EU can be taken at their word, this will not mean a hard border with the Republic. A hard border being something Brussels has repeatedly said they will never put in place.

I’m told the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis is not happy with the Protocol but for now he is trying as hard as possible to make it work until the Cabinet makes a decision. Although, as I have written previously, his method of “making it work” seems to include silencing anti-Protocol voices.

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