The original Northern Ireland Protocol came into force on 1 January 2021, addressing Northern Ireland’s relationship with both the European Union (EU) and Great Britain following Brexit.
Some two years of negotiations between the EU and the United Kingdom later and described by Rishi Sunak as a “decisive breakthrough”, the original protocol governing cross-border trade in Northern Ireland has been replaced by a new ‘Windsor Framework’.
This framework seeks to establish Northern Ireland’s trade rules and provide “smooth flowing” trade with the United Kingdom, allowing it to remain a part of the single market at the same time, a fundamental part of the Brexit deal.
Whilst there are mixed views on the new framework, there is no doubt that it reduces the number of checks required on imports from the United Kingdom into Northern Ireland, addressing a key issue of the original protocol, as outlined below.
While the United Kingdom has left the EU, Northern Ireland remains a part of the EU single market. As such, it became unclear how the United Kingdom would transport goods to and from Northern Ireland following Brexit.
In an attempt to provide some clarity, the original protocol stated that all goods were to be checked upon entry to Northern Ireland, before being moved onto Ireland or the EU. Therefore, whilst there were no checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland, Ireland and the rest of the EU, any goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland were subject to customs regulations and checks.
The time required to carry out these checks, particularly around food products, created huge issues for Northern Ireland, resulting in food supply shortages amongst other issues. The new Windsor Framework hopes to address these issues, with its key focusses being:
- Ensuring Northern Ireland’s place in the EU is protected
- Enabling movement of goods between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland can happen as freely as possible
- Enabling EU legislation to be removed from English and Welsh legislation, allowing for it to be replaced with domestic laws.
The potential impact on UK businesses
The new Windsor Framework endeavours to make cross-border trade easier for UK businesses, with Rishi Sunak stating it ensures that “customs bureaucracy will be scrapped” and “food retailers like supermarkets, restaurants and wholesalers will no longer need hundreds of certificates for every lorry.”
There are two main categories of goods – those destined for Northern Ireland and those that will continue to Ireland and the EU single market.
Green lane goods
For goods destined for Northern Ireland only, there is to be a ‘green lane’, allowing goods to pass through into Northern Ireland with a significant reduction in the amount of paperwork to be completed. Hence, for UK businesses dealing with Northern Ireland, they should be able to conduct their business with greater ease.
Red lane goods
However, for goods destined for Ireland and the EU single market, there is be a ‘red lane’, meaning these goods will still be required to undergo full customs style checks. Therefore, business who deal with the Republic of Ireland will find that there is still a high level of bureaucracy.
Logistically, constraints should be eased with the carrying of certain goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland due to the simplified rules and procedures for entry. Rules in relation to labelling will be simplified, and from 1 July 2025, it is predicted that physical inspections will only be required for around 5% of consignments of retail goods.
Particular milestones to note are:
- Medicines which have been approved for use within the UK can be sold in Northern Ireland, despite not being approved yet in the EU
- Seed potatoes and plants can now move freely into Northern Ireland provided they contain a special plant label.
With the framework having only just been put into motion, the full extent of the impact it will have is not yet certain. However, for now, things are looking up for UK businesses who trade with Northern Ireland and a more efficient and labour-saving process will hopefully soon become the norm.