Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Newton Emerson: Medicines issue risks confirming unionist suspicions on NI protocol

Reorienting medicine supply chains is not like a supermarket finding new sources of cheese

‘The medicines sea border legally requires a complete political impossibility.’ File photograph: PA Wire

The medicines sea border – which requires separate labelling and testing in Northern Ireland of medicines coming from Britain – is a fascinating subject. The reason is because it legally requires a complete political impossibility – the UK disrupting its internal medical supplies to comply with the EU's paperwork. Regardless of both sides having agreed to do this, it is simply not going to happen. How political figures respond to the resulting mess is extremely revealing.

The DUP does not give the issue of medicines as prominent a mention as might be expected. Even as the party’s Brexit meltdown becomes utterly desperate and irresponsible, its attacks on the Northern Ireland protocol – which mandates the checks – focus on broad themes of sovereignty and the union, or less serious specific problems with supermarket deliveries and online shopping. It is as if the DUP, knowing many unionists blame it for the protocol, shies away from raising its most provocative problem.

The UUP, which holds Stormont’s health portfolio, is the unionist party making all the running on the issue. Its clean hands on Brexit and willingness to work the protocol give it the credibility to highlight what the medicines sea border means and to oppose it.

Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and Greens signed up to a joint policy last September demanding the protocol's "rigorous implementation". This has left them rather sheepish as the medicines issue has emerged.


Sinn Féin has been best at leaving the “rigorous” rhetoric behind, thanks to its general audacity and perhaps also its latent Euroscepticism.

Last week, as the UK indefinitely extended the post-Brexit grace period for the implementation of checks on medicines, Sinn Féin's Stormont minister Declan Kearney acknowledged "a number of anomalies and difficulties that need to be smoothed out".

The SDLP and Alliance struggle to acknowledge imperfections in the protocol or in Brussels’s approach. Frustrated by Brexit, both parties often seem to have lapsed into an EU-nationalism that demands the same blind loyalty as any other nationalism – “my trading bloc, right or wrong”.

The SDLP is unlikely to suffer as a result but Alliance may have squandered its electoral surge and the transformative effect it could have had on Northern Ireland politics. The sceptical pragmatism of the UUP and Sinn Féin would have been a perfect fit for the centre-ground party.

Varadkar intervention

At least everyone at Stormont knows better than Leo Varadkar.

Speaking just before the grace period was extended, the Tánaiste breezily declared "vital" drugs could be sourced from the Republic or continental Europe if required.

This is Brexit cakeism of the “let them eat cake” variety.

Arguing over whether the protocol is being renegotiated inside or outside its own terms is ultimately meaningless

Northern Ireland obtains 98 per cent of its medicines from Britain, all under the UK's regulatory regime and complex NHS clinical and procurement systems. Reorienting these supply chains is not like a supermarket sourcing cheese from Louth instead of Leicester. Health officials have spent this year urgently seeking alternative sources of basic products, but even with the grace period they have barely succeeded. Doing any more would be the work of a decade, still cause significant cost increases and leave large gaps in availability compared with Britain, all for the sake of having "Northern Ireland only" stamped on labels.

Varadkar’s cakeism appears to be the default view on the protocol in the Republic, which is understandable: if EU products are good enough for the South they are good enough for the North. But medicines take that view to an unwitting extreme and risk confirming hardline unionist criticism of the protocol as about creating an “economic united Ireland”. In fact, the protocol promises to protect the UK internal market.

Admitting the problem

Admitting the medicines problem should not be difficult when the EU has conceded it. In June, Brussels offered to change its laws as a solution. The offer has since been explained as permitting separate labelling and inspection of medicines for Northern Ireland to take place in Britain, instead of in Northern Ireland or the EU as originally required.

Unfortunately, suppliers say this creates an even more distinct and hence unviable administrative burden. The UK government’s proposal, in its July command paper, is that medicines need to be taken out of the protocol entirely.

The semantics of whether this constitutes a "negotiation" have become pathetically prominent. Speaking in Belfast last week, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said he will do "whatever it takes" to keep medicines flowing but there is no question of renegotiation.

The protocol makes provision to replace itself, in whole or in part, through mutual agreement. So arguing over whether it is being renegotiated inside or outside its own terms is ultimately meaningless, especially with the EU offering changes unilaterally.

The UK’s threat to trigger article 16 if it does not get “a real negotiation”, and the EU’s reaction to this as an outrage, has an equal air of absurdity. Article 16 would merely entitle the EU to take retaliatory measures for the extended grace periods, which it has chosen not to do. It is a petty and increasingly tribal quarrel. Anyone else taking sides on it is being drawn into Northern Ireland politics in more ways than one.