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What is the Irish Sea border and how might it change under deal between DUP and UK government?

Despite changes to Brexit deal under the Windsor Framework, the DUP said the ‘border in the Irish Sea’ was splitting the UK market and was unacceptable to them

What is the Irish Sea border which has been central to the talks between the UK government and the DUP?

Under a part of the deal agreed to implement Brexit – the Northern Ireland protocol – the EU and UK agreed that there would be checks on goods, food and animals crossing from Britain to Northern Ireland. This was to ensure there was no need for a trade border on the island of Ireland where these checks would be made.

After negotiations to try to take account of unionist objections, the rules in relation to these checks were loosened under the Windsor Framework agreed early last year. This created a “green lane” for goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland with limited checks and a reduction in paperwork. Goods intended to move through Northern Ireland to the Republic are subject to stricter checks.

So what was the problem with this?


Despite the changes under the Windsor Framework, the DUP objected that the “border in the Irish Sea” was splitting the UK market and was unacceptable to them.

They also objected to the requirement that Northern Ireland would have to continue to follow changes in EU rules and regulations in certain areas. This was to allow free trade to continue across the Irish Border and allow Northern Ireland manufacturers to sell goods into the wider EU single market.

The Windsor Framework included a mechanism under which a vote of 30 MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly could put “an emergency brake” on new or amended EU rules under certain circumstances. In practice this would be likely to see these rules kicked back to a joint EU/UK committee for discussion.

So what changes has the DUP won in negotiations with the UK?

As the UK legislation has not yet been published, we don’t know. And it will all come down to fine detail. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has suggested that there will be “no checks” on goods travelling from Britain to the North – at the moment 10 per cent are subject to spotchecks, falling to 5 per cent in 2025.

So has he won a concession to go to zero, perhaps with an “out” that shipments can be stopped if smuggling or criminal activity is suspected? There is also talk of the “green lane” being renamed as the UK internal market lane. Doing away with the green lane title would be largely cosmetic, but the DUP says that customers’ procedures will be further eased, too, which could be significant.

Donaldson has also said that Northern Ireland will not have to automatically follow EU rule changes. So has the emergency brake been souped up? The EU will want guarantees that its standards are being followed if manufacturers in Northern Ireland are to continue to be able to sell freely into its single market. The European Commission says it will examine the forthcoming UK legislation to see it is in line with the Windsor Framework. Have there been quiet contacts to clear this all in advance?

It appears the EU side has not been significantly involved, though a draft change to the Windsor Framework agreed by the EU and UK and announced on Tuesday – which would improve the terms on which some meat products from third countries can enter Northern Ireland – may suggest an effort to help.

What about the future?

A related issue is what happens if UK standards diverge from the EU in certain areas in the years ahead. There were reports in recent days that Sunak’s government would commit to examine any proposed changes to ensure they did not affect Northern Ireland’s position and its ability to continue to trade in the EU customs union.

However, some Tory figures have said that Britain will still be able to diverge where it wants to. Again, we await the legislation, likely to be published on Wednesday, to see how this circle is squared.

There are also expected to be commitments about the ongoing free entry of Northern Ireland products into the UK and perhaps a new institution to promote trade across the UK.

While all sides are starting to put their own spin on the deal, trade agreements are all about the small print and the detail. And some things are binary. An interesting few days lie ahead as the detail of what has been agreed is outlined.

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