Fettered access: what Brexit really means for trade with Northern Ireland

Port of Larne harbour showing ferry loading ramps
Anne Burgess / Port of Larne

On 22 January this year, at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson was asked by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson about his assurance of “unfettered access for NI businesses into the UK single market” and if that commitment also applied “to goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland?”

Donaldson got the ‘assurance’ he wanted, as the prime minister replied, “Emphatically it does”.

Later, speaking on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge programme, Johnson repeated: “There’s no question of there being checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or Great Britain to Northern Ireland”.

We can now see exactly what that ‘assurance’ was worth – nothing.

Last Tuesday, Manufacturing NI, a campaigning organisation based in Portadown, posted a video on YouTube of an hour-long webinar helping to explain to companies trading between Northern Ireland and GB how the Trader Support Service (TSS) will work from 1 January next year. There will be checks, plus a lot of paperwork.

It will come as a profound shock to many companies and possibly to Donaldson himself. GB-NI trade looks well and truly fettered (adjective: restricted; confined). The process itself, which must be unique in any nation’s internal trade, appears complex, cumbersome and bureaucratic.

Firms that have been trading across the Irish Sea for years with minimal paperwork, just delivery or consignment notes, now find they have to become exporters or importers with all that that entails.

Firstly, get used to Incoterms when quoting or reviewing prices. Are the goods ex works (waiting in the suppliers factory for instructions or collection) or delivered, duty paid (DDP) to the buyers premises? 

This will become crucial in the future, because it sets out who is responsible for getting goods across the new border. With DDP, the seller bears all the costs and risks involved in bringing the consignment to the agreed destination and has to clear the goods not only for export from GB but also for import to NI, to pay any duty and to carry out all customs formalities.

Screenshot of a graphic showing how the Trader Support Service will operate using Incoterms
Screenshot from Manufacturing NI webinar

And you can see why this responsibility matters when the ‘simplified’ process of customs declarations is explained with a graphic:

Screenshot of a graphic showing how the Trader Support Service will operate the simplified customs procedure
Screenshot from Manufacturing NI webinar

At the moment, any transactions are simply a matter between the buyer and seller, after 1 January it becomes a convoluted process involving four other entities.  

The haulier will need to obtain information from the supplier (or buyer) in order to submit data to the Trader Support Service. The TSS interacts with HMRC using either the Import Control System or the Customs Declaration Service to generate a Movement Reference Number (MRN) for each consignment. This is each item on the manifest.

The haulier them uses the MRN to get a Goods Movement Reference (GMR) which needs to be validated by the ferry operator to allow the vehicle to board the ferry. It may also be necessary for the haulier to stop on arrival in Ireland for the goods or the paperwork to be examined.

There are different procedures for products of plant or animal origin involving sanitary or phytosanitary (SPS) checks:

Screenshot of a graphic showing how the Trader Support Service will operate for food and plant products
Screenshot from Manufacturing NI webinar

Another process is used for ‘controlled’ and exise goods – goods like wines and spirits, fuel, fertilisers, drugs, firearms, explosives and even some fisheries products:

Screenshot of a graphic showing how the Trader Support Service will operate for controlled and exicise goods
Screenshot from Manufacturing NI webinar

The BBC’s Northern Ireland Economics & Business Editor, John Campbell, tweeted:

It’s obvious that if you introduce friction into GB-NI trade, companies will take steps to reduce it and remain competitive. For UK supermarkets this will mean moving the manufacture of own label products wherever possible to Ireland from which they really will have ‘unfettered access’ to Northern Ireland.

This will create jobs in Ireland at the expense of jobs in the UK and bring Irish unification a step closer.

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