It’s official – there will be additional border control posts at ports of entry into Northern Ireland. An entry into Northern Ireland means an exit from Great Britain. But how can this be done? Katy Hayward and Tony Smith reveal the secret to making the Irish Sea border a smooth crossing.
So, we finally have it – the UK government has told the NI Executive that there will be additional border control posts at ports of entry into Northern Ireland. This green light (or red flag, depending on how you view it) has been a long time coming. Although experts have been pointing to the necessity of this since the revised Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland was first revealed, the government has been slow to acknowledge its implications for the movement of goods across the Irish Sea.
The Protocol means that goods moving east to west across the Irish Sea entry are – as a baseline – to be treated as leaving a ‘third country’ and entering the EU’s single market and customs union. In a wholly new way for the UK internal market, entry into Northern Ireland means exit from Great Britain. And this means additional border checks and controls, at least for live animals and agri-foods. And these, in turn, mean a border management system is required that is quite new in terms of location and scope.
This has big implications for the UK internal market and big implications for Northern Ireland’s economy, all of which require political and policy attention. But in this short piece, we want to step aside from the drama and the politics and even the ‘technical solutions’. Instead, we want to consider the problem in a constructive way. The Protocol entails a major change in the management of borders within the UK. Why not manage it as well as possible?
Using lessons from the rollout of new border management systems elsewhere, we want to bring forward three high-level principles that the UK government would do well to bear in mind.
The first principle is that of partnership. Border management is complicated. The challenge will not only be in the hands of UK Border Force. A wide spectrum of actors will be involved: police, customs, policy specialists, data analysts, market surveillance authorities, veterinarians, freight hauliers, ferry operators… And that’s before you even begin to consider the diverse array of those (from massive supermarkets to small farmers) who will have new procedures to implement just in order to keep buying from and selling to the same people as before.
Because it is so complicated, the system to manage it needs to be carefully designed and finely tuned. And for this reason, the partnership needs to be built with those who will be responsible for operating the system. The focus should not be on the highest levels but on those whose livelihoods depend on it working well. Ideally, to use the buzz phrase, you need to ‘co-create’ the system, hand in hand with the importing/exporting industry. Bring them in from the start, and understand what it is that they need. In short, collaboration holds the key to success.
Building a relationship of trust and respect between government agencies and industry is a good thing to do. This is not just because it is imperative that the system meets their requirements but also because it is a relationship that needs to endure. And that trust can reap rewards in due course. If businesses know that the system has been designed to best facilitate trade, then in the future they will be more likely to tell you about holes or wrinkles or breaches in that system that prevent it from working effectively.
The second principle is that of cross-border cooperation. There is plenty of evidence to show that you don’t need to be in a political union to have good border management. What you do need, however, is a good bilateral or multilateral agreement and a level of confidence and trust between the parties. A study conducted for Cambridge University last year on borders in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region illustrates the point: even across the hardest of borders, cross-agency programmes can work if there is a political will to achieve it.
And the more ‘open’ the borders around Northern Ireland, the greater the need for cooperation between the agencies involved in border management on either sides of those borders. Communication and collaboration need to be valued and enhanced between departments/agencies in the different parts of the UK. And there is an urgent need to reinforce the good working relationship that already exists between the Irish Revenue Commissioners and UK Border Force especially given the rapidly-changing environment in which such cooperation can occur.
The third principle is that of preparation. UK Border Force will have overall responsibility for conducting any regulatory checks and inspections on the GB/NI routes, in tandem with a range of experts from other agencies. These checks will be conducted under policy guidance on behalf of all the relevant agencies, including HMRC and DEFRA (or DAERA in the case of Northern Ireland). UK Border Force already has officers deployed in Belfast and Liverpool ports; but so far they have been preoccupied solely on extra-EU traffic. Intra-UK goods traffic is (perhaps ironically) a rather unfamiliar subject for scrutiny.
No change to ‘our way of doing things’ can happen overnight without a period of ‘getting used to it’. This is especially true when it comes to the use of technology, as anyone who has tried to use a PC after years of working on a Mac can testify. And, speaking of IT, because there has been no history of taking and compiling detailed records of goods movement between GB and Northern Ireland, the information we have to start with is incomplete. In order to have enough data to work out what is trivial and what is significant when it comes to unexpected movements or increase in traffic, there needs to be a system in place to capture data early.
We don’t have to do customs checks by opening every box, crate and lorry. Future checks and searches have to be based on intelligence, not mere suspicion. And intelligence is refined information. There is already a wealth of data and technology across the supply chains that is not currently visible or accessible to the government. This is even more reason for government and industry to work together to facilitate compliant trade and traffic routes, whilst simultaneously ensuring compliance. But this needs to begin soon.
Overall we should never lose sight of the reason why it is worth making difficult decisions and taking action now. We must minimise the administrative burden and costs of increased friction on trade across the Irish Sea to avoid gratuitous harm to businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland. Balancing the need to protect the EU’s single market alongside securing the UK’s internal market will be a tricky one, and the details are still subject to careful negotiation. But, meanwhile, the need for partnership, cross-border cooperation and preparation only intensifies. It would be a measure of national responsibility and ambition, not concession, for the UK government to act on these principles.
This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image © Copyright Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Whilst it would seem appropriate to approach this problem, as you say, in a constructive way, we should remember a few points in this regard.
Firstly, the source of this problem is entirely *de*structive, meaning a constructive approach is difficult to see. Leaving the EU is a self-inflicted harm, carrying numerous problems, for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. These were known before the referendum even took place, yet ignored or consigned to “Project Fear” by those with vested interests. Northern Ireland did not support Brexit at the referendum, so it is a big ask to suggest the people there, feeling abandoned and damaged by the Anglocentric government’s ideological support for Brexit, should work to support the unnecessary division. Our arrangement with the EU took a long time to forge, but it appears a small handful of media billionaires and hedge fund managers have managed to traduce Parliamentary democracy by forcing through this undesirable situation. Now we are beginning to see the harm brought about by national isolation resulting from the current pandemic, the public throughout the UK today appear to have less appetite for the harm Brexit will undoubtedly wreak.
Secondy, the UK government has failed miserably in its preparations. The vast amounts of money they set aside for border controls have not yielded any concrete results, as far as I am aware. Where is the infrastructure? Where are the staff? Who is training those staff? It is notable that a requirement of 50,000 *additional* border officers are required, bringing the UK’s total need for such personnel up to a total *in excess* of the *entire* European Union. This ramping up of bureaucracy is in direct opposition to the promises we were made by Johnson and others that bureaucracy would be reduced by Brexit. None of this inspires anyone to trust this government. A lack of trust — especially in Northern Ireland, who are well aware of the implications this scheme has for the hard-won Good Friday Agreement — does not induce them to work constructively with government.
Thirdly, the signs are clear that Johnson’s days are numbered. Knives within his own party are being sharpened in preparation for a replacement who can withstand the intellectual rigor of Keir Starmer. While Johnson’s buffoon act may have been enough to sway unthinking jingoistic supporters for leaving the EU, it cannot be sustained successfully in these more sombre times. His hard line refusal to extend the transition period is indicative of his lack of intelligence as a leader. Even hard Brexit supporters recognise the need for an extension. Yet Johnson’s government is still slavishly intoning the mantra, “No extension”. This flies in the face of sanity and will surely provide the catalyst for his ejection. So I would further challenge the idea that it’s possible to be “constructive” with this government, because their leader — and his extreme ideology — is doomed. Quite what the Conservative Party will do after he’s gone is hard to guess, given that he is the fig leaf covering the underlying “Nasty Party”. Once he’s gone, I suspect the public will see them for what they are and, given that the Labour Party have now adopted a leader who looks, talks and behaves in a more Prime Ministerial fashion than Johnson does, I would speculate there may be a General Election, resulting in a Labour government. As Starmer is, like most UK citizens now, pro-EU, I can only hope we manage to regain some of our standing and good will with Europe that has been so foolishly squandered by successive Tory governments.
Excellent Comment. My only reservation is regarding your view on a General Election. With an 80 seat majority and the fixed term act, I don’t see this happening.
The technical parameters of trans-border operations in a time of uncertainty are elegantly spelt out in the article. However, the legal architecture may be undermined by the lack of trust, reneging on legal agreements and assurances that have characterised the Brexit discussions-and similarly the COVID-19 debate. Although, of late, there is evidence that the NI executive is flexing its devolutionary muscle, in tandem with the other Celtic regions, I am still not convinced that the 1922 Committee will not pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last moment and there will be once again a physical border on the island of Ireland.
“Of course, when. A country seeks independence and acquires it, there are some things which must need be rent asunder or adjusted.” I would take issue with the idea that the UK, or even England, was a country “seeking independence”. Prior to the referendum in 2016, there was little or no desire to leave the EU amongst the general populus. The prevailing attitude towards the European Union was apathy — look at the turnout for European elections if you need proof of that. Those that did bother to think about it had no strong feelings one way or the other — Europe was simply something the government had allied us with and, by and large, the advantages were recognised. If nothing else, it made nipping over to France for a few cases of wine easy for those in the South East. It wasn’t until a small but noisy sector of the Conservative Party, together with the big five media barons, started belting on about it that feelings were whipped up. Of course, it was Johnson himself, while a newspaper hack, who confected a level of anti-EU feeling that didn’t previously exist, by writing in the Sun and Telegraph, amongst other places, about entirely fictitious “problems” with the EU, such as straight bananas (I think that was his invention, just like the fish pillows) and a slew of other outright lies. The people who wanted Brexit — and created support for it using very dubious means — were by and large those with vested interests: media moguls (with their offshore tax evasion schemes) and hedge fund managers (such as Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farrage). The way they got enough of the public on board to *just* tip the vote in their favour (much to Johnson’s surprise) was basically to tell lies: “we need to make our own laws” (we already did); “we need to control immigration” (immigration laws were entirely under our control and freedom of movement still didn’t allow EU citizens to just come here and use our public services willy-nilly — there were controls in place of our own making, just as in other EU states); “the EU creates too much bureaucracy” (compare the import/export system in place now with what is to be required, not only in N.Ireland, but throughout the UK, demanding more border control staff here than the entire EU put together). We were sold a pup, purely for the benefit of a select, wealthy élite. A country seeking independence? No. A tiny minority of people who could make money out of tax dodging and disaster capitalism sought freedom from restraint. I’m not saying the EU is not in need of reform, but the regulations the EU fosters are a darn sight better than the free-for-all devil-take-the-hindmost policies we look set to have inflicted upon us. That is precisely why this remainer doesn’t want to give up. Being inside the world’s biggest trading bloc with a privileged seat at the table gives us much more power, not only directly with all the treaties and agreements that go with membership, but also because it gives us the opportunity to reform from within. Throwing all that away — especially when we’ve been brought to our knees by coronavirus — is foolish by any standards.
Will Shaman: “Of course, it was Johnson himself, while a newspaper hack, who confected a level of anti-EU feeling that didn’t previously exist, by writing in the Sun and Telegraph, amongst other places, about entirely fictitious “problems” with the EU, such as straight bananas (I think that was his invention, just like the fish pillows) and a slew of other outright lies. “. Factually I think this is not true. The Sun was not especially pro-EU long before Johnson really got going on his anti-EU articles. Remember “Up Yours Delors?” from 1990 ? https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/politics/116590/europes-dream-it-crumbled-and-died/
Of course you are entitled to blame the Sun’s position on Rupert Murdoch. However Rupert Murdoch would not have got where he was except by selling newspapers, which means that the Sun would have not held the position it did hold unless it thought it was writing what its readers wanted to read. (Thus I believe the Sun in GE 1992 inconsistently supported the Tories in England but the SNP in the Scottish edition.)
Whatever happens, we will never be bereft of a difference of opinion to opine about. The EU unification project keeps on giving, and think of all the academics who would be out of a job without the EU. So, UKIP has been around a long time. The referendum eventually happened courtesy the Camerone. I have followed the debate since the second half of 2015. Even before the referendum I opined that if Leave were to lose, the resistance against the EU would persist.
Many Remainers, as we can see, have not accepted the Brexit ref result. That is understandable, but not the same as Leavers never being reconciled to continued EU membership. The difference being in human nature. No matter what, a minority will always cleave to the principles of individual human rights and inalienable civil rights. These principles are the basis for the Brexit argument. Remainers have no principles to fall back on. Before the EU/EC/EEC, one could travel all over Western Europe and migrate to any of these countries, as many did, if one so desired. Now, there is no law stopping people from the UK holidaying in the EU or migrating there.
Although there are always people to be found in favour of some measure of totalitarian rule, and willing to support it, they have not the depth of conviction to carry the struggle indefinitely, whereas the struggle for freedom will never cease as long as there is any kind of tyranny.
However, as has been shown by the reluctance of Westminster to do as promised and deliver Brexit, leaving the EU does not of itself bring back democracy in the UK. The border issue between NI and the rest of the UK is but an example. One suspects the Establishment in England hopes to rid the UK of Northern Ireland some day. It would unlikely to end the difficulties between Republicans and Unionists in NI, but one headache less for Westminster.
they havent gone away , you know.
i dont think the 1922 committee will risk reactivating the england department
Oh dear, what a pickle. How to make the best of a bad job. Of course, the problem, apart from historical issues, started with the GFA. Whatever one might think of anyone’s politics, it is just a fact of life that once certain move are made the entire chessboard is permanently affected until the game is over. The DUP and others in NI who wish to remain part of the union have lost out here due to a chain of home-grown duplicities of probably unprecedented effect.
The politics of power and the power of politics are facts which can be changed, but not denied, and only changed by a combination of time, fortuitous circumstances and hard graft. Whatever one thinks of terrorists, if they didn’t succeed some time or other there would be fewer of them and the world would look much different from what it does. In hindsight, one might as well let it rest, but in NI are now a group or several groups who are not happy. The future for the royalists/unionists in NI looks, well, not promising. Maybe the DUP didn’t play their cards right. Westminster, The Commons, Boris, and, let’s not forget, all the Remainers who would not, and even now will not, give up, have made it what it is. One would hesitate to call it what it is, in fact. Of course, when. A country seeks independence and acquires it, there are some things which must need be rent asunder or adjusted. In this case, the GFA must have been the first to give way. However, for a number of reasons, it could not be given up due to, mainly, the Establishment in England tearing up 800 years and more of legal precedent.
Common Law in some respects predates 1066 and all that. It is basically of little consequence now. The same applies to democracy such as it was. This has been debated ad infinitum without the contenders giving any ground. This was not just any referendum. The lead-up, the firm assurances, nay, the absolute guarantees from all these worthies, that result would be acted upon. Well, there we are. People in NI will need to be innovative, clever even, to deal with this imbroglio. All due to the EU, which has been at pains for decades, planning for many decades, to break up the EU member nation-states by any and all means. Northern Ireland has now truly devolved. What a pickle. Thankfully, England(London?) will be on hand to ease the pain with many more billions of pounds in subsidies and what not every year until… goodness knows when(and how).