Northern Ireland Protocol: What did Boris Johnson say?

By the Reality Check team
bbc news

image source, fake images

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, called a protocol, “is becoming a political issue” that needs to be rectified.

The deal, which he negotiated and signed, came into force in January 2021 and means that Northern Ireland (NI) still follows some EU rules.

Its aim was to avoid checks on goods crossing the border into the Republic of Ireland, but has led to checks on goods arriving in NI from Great Britain (GB).

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is opposed because it has created a trade barrier with the rest of the UK. It will not allow the formation of a new government in NI unless there are significant changes. However, after the recent elections, the majority of assembly members accept the protocol.

Johnson is pushing for changes to the deal, and the government is considering whether to scrap parts of it, but this is in stark contrast to what he said about the protocol at the time he negotiated it.

‘A good deal… with as few bureaucratic consequences as possible’ – October 19, 2019

Johnson made this assessment in the House of Commons shortly after agreeing the terms of the deal, and urged MPs to back it.

But the protocol’s annexes set out a long list of EU laws that would apply to NI, including laws dealing with animal products and the EU customs code.

The government’s own impact assessment, published at the time, was clear. “Goods arriving in Northern Ireland, including from Britain,” he said, “would be subject to regulatory checks in accordance with EU rules.”

And an internal document prepared by the Treasury – leaked a few weeks later – warned that “customs declarations and documentary and physical controls… will be very detrimental to the NI economy.”

He also highlighted possible constitutional implications, saying NI could be “symbolically separate” from the rest of the UK.

One year after the changes went into effect, the NI Chambers of Commerce found that a very high proportion of members had experienced increases in the prices of goods and services and in the amount of time needed to transport the goods.

‘If anyone asks to do that, tell them to call the PM and I’ll tell them to throw that form in the bin’ – Nov 8, 2019

A businessman from NI asked Mr. Johnson if he could tell his staff that they would not have to complete customs declarations for goods going from NI to GB. Johnson said that he could.

However, in subsequent negotiations, the need for formal NI-GB customs forms was removed, thus fulfilling this part of the PM’s promise.

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‘There will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI, or from NI to GB’ – Dec 8, 2019

In December 2019, Johnson had this to say on Sky News in response to a question about the caveats in the leaked Treasury document.

Parts of the Treasury document are now out of date (the possibility that duties or taxes could be levied on many goods crossing from GB to NI, for example, was removed with the signing of the new EU-UK free trade agreement in December 2020).

But it clearly stated that there would be a series of bureaucratic measures that would affect GB-NI trade, including customs declarations, food safety checks, security checks, and regulatory checks on product standards.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), says that between January 1, 2021 and March 20, 2022, various checks (either document or physical inspections) were carried out at NI ports on:

  • 157,349 food shipments
  • 7,484 consignments of live animals
  • 147 shipments were denied entry

And this was despite a series of “grace periods”, during which full implementation of EU rules was temporarily suspended to allow businesses to get used to the new way of trading.

‘It is fully compatible with the Good Friday agreement’ – October 19, 2019

Boris Johnson claimed this in response to a question in Parliament from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, who said the protocol “drives a carriage and horses through the Belfast Agreement” and urged Johnson to reconsider the plan.

He reminded the PM that he had told the DUP conference in 2018 that “no British Conservative government could or should sign” an agreement with regulatory checks and customs checks between GB and NI.

On May 11, 2022, at a press conference in Sweden, Mr. Johnson said that the Good Friday Agreement meant that “things have to have the support of all communities. Clearly, the Northern Ireland Protocol doesn’t do that and we have to figure it out.” .

The protocol has a consent mechanism which means that members of the assembly are asked to vote on it. The first consent vote is scheduled for 2024.

image source, fake images

‘There will be no border in the Irish Sea… over my dead body’ – August 13, 2020

In August 2020, Johnson made this promise, one he has repeated several times.

But it is not necessary to have passport controls and officers with peaked caps to qualify as a border.

NI is being treated differently than the rest of the UK for trade in goods, as required by protocol. So, there is a trade border in the Irish Sea.

The DUP is deeply unhappy with this and has adopted the slogan “There are no borders in the Irish Sea”.

What have the UK and the EU said since then?

Boris Johnson says the EU has been too strict in its interpretation of the protocol by sticking to the letter of the law. In July 2021 he issued his proposals for change.

He wants to do away with many of the controls the deal creates and trust in the honesty of companies to make sure EU rules are not broken.

When it comes to changing the current treaty, the EU is determined. The Vice President of the European Commission, Maros Sefcovic, said: “The protocol, as a cornerstone of the [Brexit] withdrawal agreement, it is an international agreement. Its renegotiation is not an option.”

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