The Northern Ireland Protocol is often in the news. This handy guide brings you up-to-date on what it's all about.

Remind me, what is the protocol again?

The protocol is part of the Withdrawal Agreement - the international treaty under which the UK left the EU.

It was a compromise to prevent a hard border with checks on goods crossing from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland and the EU's single market.

Under it, Northern Ireland left the EU along with the rest of the UK.

But the British government accepted that it would stay aligned with the EU's single market rules for goods.

The EU's customs and agri-food regulations would also continue to apply to goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Britain across the Irish Sea.

The deal allowed the necessary checks to be done at Northern Ireland's ports instead of along the 482km land border.

It has been dubbed "The Irish Sea Border".

If the UK government agreed to the protocol, why is it still controversial?

Unionists object to the protocol saying it undermines Northern Ireland's constitutional position in the UK.

They say it also adds complexity and cost for some companies importing goods from Britain.

The row stopped the restoration of power-sharing after the May 2022 Assembly election.

The DUP is refusing to go back into Stormont until its concerns are addressed.

Protocol supporters like it because it gives NI companies unique access to both EU and UK markets - a commercial advantage they want to keep.

They say any issues can be ironed out by negotiation between the UK and EU.

A vocal group of Tory MPs also oppose the protocol. They say EU rules applying in Northern Ireland undermines British sovereignty.

For all those reasons the UK government demanded changes.

How did the EU feel about that?

They weren't keen. Initially, they ruled out renegotiation of the protocol and rejected unilateral UK plans for changes.

The appointment of Rishi Sunak as British Prime Minister helped improve relations.

Over time the EU's negotiating stance and language softened.

Recent talks between both sides produced a deal on sharing information about goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland.

That built trust, which had been lacking, and has heightened expectation of a wider deal.

So are we expecting a breakthrough?

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. What's in the back of trucks on ferries is not the only issue.

There's also the question of who arbitrates in legal disputes.

The European Court of Justice rules on questions of EU law, but when it comes to Northern Ireland the UK wants a new independent body to do it.

Then there's how things will be handled as Britain moves away from EU production standards.

Will those goods also be freely available in Northern Ireland?

And how the UK government chooses to support businesses could also prove tricky. The EU has strict rules about that and they still apply in Northern Ireland in certain circumstances.

Some of these are easier to crack than others. So we're not there yet.

But things are looking up, right?

Well things are much better than they were.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he regrets that the protocol was imposed without input from Northern Ireland parties and he understands unionist concerns.

There's been a flurry of political engagement in Dublin, London, Belfast and Brussels.

The UK government has agreed to build permanent inspection posts - something on which the EU had been insisting.

There's been a suggestion it could all help deliver a deal in time to restore Stormont before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement later this year.

But for that to happen any settlement would have to get over a very high bar the DUP has set - and that will prove difficult.

How does the protocol affect people on a daily basis?

Most people will tell you it doesn't actually affect their lives at all. But if you run a business, especially one importing goods from Britain, you may have seen additional cost and complexity.

The DUP says that cost is being passed on to consumers and is increasing prices, but it's hard to get data that supports that contention. Checks along the border have been all but ruled out. There's no support in any quarter for that.

The aim of the latest round of EU/UK negotiations is to eliminate as many of them as possible and agree how to deal with what's left.

How does all this affect the Good Friday Agreement?

The protocol was meant to protect the Good Friday Agreement by ensuring no hardening of the border on the island with customs posts and other checks.

The 25th anniversary of the historic peace deal is coming up in April and its supporters want to be able to celebrate it.

But the DUP has gone so far as to say that if the protocol problems are not resolved it could destroy the 1998 agreement.

It points out that not a single unionist MLA supports the protocol in its current form and Northern Ireland doesn't work unless there's cross-community consensus on important issues.

So there's a lot at stake.

First published January 2023