Northern Ireland Bill: This is What You Need to Know
Northern Ireland has been in limbo between the UK and the EU ever since Brexit, with the small country remaining inside both customs territories. The Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs the region’s customs clearance requirements, was created to keep trade moving and avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
However, the Protocol has been subject to criticism due to the complications that it imposes on businesses, which have prevented trade and caused political unrest.
Following a demand for a solution from the Northern Irish Government, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed a solution: the Northern Ireland Bill. This is a piece of UK legislation that is intended to alter the Northern Ireland Protocol and support businesses on both sides of the border.
Although Boris Johnson insists that the bill is needed to address serious issues that the NI Protocol has created, it has been met with fierce opposition from the EU and members of the UK parliament.
In this article, we will explain how the Northern Ireland Bill will work.
What will the Northern Ireland Bill mean for customs?
Currently, Northern Ireland remains in the EU customs area. As a result, goods moving to NI from elsewhere in the UK are subject to additional customs controls at the NI border.
The NI / mainland UK border was installed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, something which would have jeopardised the Good Friday Agreement and threatened the peace that was achieved after the violent period known as The Troubles.
If the current bill comes into law, it will create two channels for goods coming into NI:
Green Channel: For goods that will be staying in Northern Ireland.
Red Channel: For goods that will be traveling into the EU.
In this way, the UK Government aims to make it possible for businesses to declare whether their goods are destined for EU or remain in the UK. Goods in the green channel can then move as freely as they would between any other two UK countries, whereas goods destined for the EU (the red channel) would continue to be subject to stricter controls.
Why was the Northern Ireland Bill created?
The UK Government has highlighted that the Protocol does not safeguard businesses that are trading between Northern Ireland and mainland UK, but instead applies EU regulations to all shipments.
This makes the clearance process more complex and time-consuming for businesses, with many of them arguing that this is unnecessary as they do not trade with the Republic of Ireland. Importers who move food and horticultural shipments are particularly impacted as longer waits have consequences for perishable goods.
Another objection to the NI Protocol is that it legally undermines Northern Ireland’s position as a UK country, due to the border between NI and the rest of the UK. This has caused political unrest with NI unionist parties and the DUP – the largest union party – are refusing to form a power-sharing arrangement until the protocol is changed. This has left Northern Ireland without a devolved government since February.
As a proposed compromise to the UK and EU’s requirements, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson created the Northern Ireland Bill to trigger Article 16 from the Protocol – which allows the EU or UK to unilaterally amend the agreement to resolve economic, environmental, or social difficulties.
When will the Northern Ireland Bill come into effect?
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is hopeful that the bill could enter UK law by the end of the year, but this remains to be seen.
The bill has now successfully passed through the UK’s House of Commons (passing its third and final reading with 267 votes in favor and 195 against), with proposed amendments by the opposing parties rejected. It will be reviewed in the House of Lords in the Autumn, where it will undergo more readings and where further amendments can be proposed.
The Northern Ireland Bill must be passed through both the House of Commons and the House of Lords to be integrated into UK law.
What Are the Criticisms of the NI Bill?
The EU has condemned the legislation, claiming it would breach international law. It has urged the UK government to consider alternative solutions for the current problems, including a reduction in customs administration and an expansion of the current trusted trader scheme.
The EU has also begun legal proceedings against the UK for failing to perform actions it agreed to undertake under the Brexit deal. It is likely to take further legal action should the bill pass into UK law and may also take retaliatory trade measures.
MEPs, EU officials, and notable political figures (including the prime minister and deputy prime minister of The Republic of Ireland) have criticised the UK for taking this approach, rather than attempting to achieve a compromise through negotiation. The Vice President of the EU Commission Maros Sefcovic said there was "no legal or political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement." He later reiterated that the EU was open to negotiation but that "political will in London” was necessary for productive talks.
There has been substantial opposition to the bill within the UK as well, including from former Prime Minister Theresa May who questioned its legality. Though the DUP is in favor of amending the NI protocol, other parties within Northern Ireland are against the legislation.
While the bill has now successfully passed through the commons, there are likely to be further attempts to challenge and amend it.
What Does the Northern Ireland Bill Mean for you?
Currently, the Northern Ireland border is still operating as before and will continue to do so until the bill becomes law, or an alternative agreement is reached. As a business, you do not need to take any additional actions at this time.
If you would like guidance about the import and export procedures that apply to Northern Ireland, please contact us for more information.