The place of Northern Ireland within a trade settlement between the European Union and the United Kingdom is the great Gordian Knot of the Brexit saga. Its complexities plagued the negotiations between Brussels and Theresa May’s ill-fated government; and it was only with great difficulty – and much diplomatic movement – that a compromise was struck by her successor, Boris Johnson, in October 2019.

Now the British government has published a new command paper outlining how it will seek to regulate Northern Irish trade after the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December. It sets out a plan to introduce minimal checks on trade moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to expand customs infrastructure for certain goods.

The stance set out in the paper, “The UK’s Approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol”, is Britain’s attempt to implement one of the crucial commitments made by the UK and the EU in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – the Northern Irish Protocol.

The Protocol states that Northern Ireland will remain aligned to certain EU rules on goods to avoid customs checks on the island of Ireland, while some necessary checks and controls will take place on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain. Customs duties will only be paid on goods believed to be “at risk” of entering the EU Single Market from the UK.

Under Downing Street’s plans, Northern Ireland will remain a part of the UK and its customs territory and the government says there will be “unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s producers to the whole of the UK market” which will be delivered by new legislation by the end of the year. The government also claims that “No tariffs will be paid on goods that move and remain within the UK customs territory”.

Yet in order to satisfy the Protocol, the government has attempted to make some movement on implementing some limited border checks.

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Secretary, announced in the House of Commons today: “There will need to be declarations on goods as they move from GB to NI”. He also said that while the “implementation of the protocol will not involve new customs infrastructure”, it would involve “some expansion of existing infrastructure” to provide rigorous checks for agri-foods and live animals.

This is controversial among Unionists in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in Great Britain. Boris Johnson and his ministers have repeatedly suggested that there will be no checks on goods traded between the UK and Northern Ireland.

But Michael Gove in the House today argued that any checks “will be electronic and they will be administered by the UK authorities”. He added that the checks to agriculture and live animals will be vital in protecting “supply chains” and “the disease-free status of the island of Ireland”.

When questioned by MPs, the Cabinet Secretary said that these checks would all be “unobtrusive” and “as light touch as possible”, and “integrated” into VAT returns and other such processes where possible. He suggested that, if a Free Trade Agreement is not agreed between the UK and the EU, then HMRC would find a way to waive or compensate for tariffs incurred by trade across the Irish Sea.

The proposals have met with a mixed response. Raoul Ruparel, a Special Adviser on Europe under Theresa May, is upbeat: “My personal view is that it is a good opening pitch. It moves towards the landing zone: politically sensitive, economically viable and legally sound. But more detail is needed”.

But Ruparel cautions that the UK’s “ambitious” call for light customs checks without new infrastructure is likely to be a sticking point with the EU, and adds that the new approach “still represents new burdens for businesses”.

Manufacturing Northern Ireland, a campaigning organisation for Northern Irish producers, has welcomed Downing Street’s approach, but has called for “much more detail on how the UK will guarantee unfettered access for NI goods to the GB market.”

The proposals will now be scrutinised by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier and his team, who are expected to provide their own counter-proposals. The UK’s insistence on a light-touch approach to checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is likely to provide a point of contention.

Further disputes also surround the question of whether the EU should have a permanent presence in Belfast to oversee checks on goods. Where Brussels sees this as mandated by the Protocol, Downing Street believes it would be an unacceptable encroachment in a region that remains a part of the UK’s customs territory and sovereign state.

Tensions have also risen between the two negotiating teams over the last twenty-four hours, as the diplomatic Sherpas for both sides exchanged letters on why negotiations have yet to make progress towards a trade deal.

Last night Downing Street’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, wrote a letter to Michel Barnier which explained his frustrations at what he sees as inconsistencies in the EU’s approach to trade talks. Frost accused the EU of offering “not a fair free trade relationship between close economic partners, but a relatively low-quality trade agreement coming with unprecedented EU oversight of our laws and institutions.”

Barnier hit back today, taking Frost to task for the “tone” of the letter, and charging that Britain’s negotiators are “cherry picking from our past agreements” and demanding “unprecedented” access to the Single Market, without agreeing to the necessary obligations which would have to accompany this access.

Amid the rhetoric from both sides, however, there could be a sign of the EU softening its own tone ever so slightly on the controversial “level playing field”.

Where the EU’s negotiating mandate calls for “corresponding high standards over time” between the UK and the Union, standards modelled on the Brussels rulebook, Barnier’s letter might have suggested a way to a compromise. Barnier emphasises that the EU’s approach: “does not mean that the UK would be bound by EU law after the end of the transition period”, adding that “the UK will remain entirely free to set its own higher standards.”

Yet there are still many obstacles which remain between the current impasse and a successful trade deal. The UK and the EU will have to do much more than cut the Gordian knot of Irish trade – they still need to square awkward circles on fundamental questions of free trade and sovereignty.