Work on Irish Sea border planning halted amid calls for clarity

Anne Burgess / Port of Larne
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The Northern Ireland protocol is like a ship drifting slowly and silently onto the rocks while the passengers and crew are engaged in a weird metaphysical debate among themselves about what the vessel actually means in reality.

Yesterday we learned via the BBC that Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister has decided to stop planning to avert a humiliating disaster and called for more “clarity.”

Edwin Poots has apparently sent a letter to DEFRA secretary George Eustice advising the cabinet minister that he “will not submit formal applications for new Brexit-related port infrastructure until he gets more clarity from the UK government on how it will be used.”

Given that almost nobody thought the original December timescale had the slightest chance of being met, this will come as a serious blow. The EU, having offered to extend the transition and been rebuffed by the UK government, is unlikely to have any sympathy. Barnier has said that full compliance with the Withdrawal Agreement is a pre-requisite for any trade deal and EU leaders are watching very carefully to see what happens.

Whilst acknowledging a legal responsibility to create approved border control posts, Mr Poots is asking for more precise details of how these are expected to work after 1 January 2021.

He raises a series of urgent if fundamental questions about major UK supermarkets becoming exporters to their own stores but being exempt from checks as “trusted traders” – known as authorised economic operators – and whether a check on just 1 per cent of non-trusted trader goods would be acceptable.

The protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement is quite clear on this. The EU expects the full extent of the union customs code to be applied, with any exemptions and easements to be jointly agreed later through the Joint Committee.

Last month, the chief vet in the NI Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs said the European Commission was expecting details of the border control post plans by the end of June.

Mr Eustice’s in-tray also saw another letter this week, a 35-page effort from the House of Lords European Union committee about the potential impact of the Northern Ireland protocol on the agri-food sector, which accounts for 30 per cent of manufacturing and 25-30 per cent of private sector employment in the province.

The committee said there was support from some key organisations in the sector, especially in contrast to the alternative of a ‘no deal’ exit, but there are serious concerns about implementation that could “threaten the viability of some businesses and put upward pressure on food prices for consumers in Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent, the rest of the UK.” 

In written evidence, the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation raised questions about NI boats being subject to rules that apply to third country vessels when landing catches in local ports under EU regulations. The organisation appears to want to be treated as EU-registered vessels as regards landing fish but not subject to the Common Fisheries Policy when catching them. A case perhaps of having their hake and eating it – a habit picked up from the prime minister.

The Anderson Centre, a farming consultancy, called for a “comprehensive regulatory equivalence agreement” which it seems to think would mean that any regulatory formalities, such as SPS checks, would be “much less burdensome”. This is mutual recognition of standards by another name, something which is impossible and already ruled out by the EU.

Regulatory equivalence means nothing outside the single market surveillance and enforcement mechanisms and even if the Johnson government was to agree such ‘equivalence’, against everything it has said on the subject, it is unlikely to make much of a difference anyway.

One can see why NI businesses want to reduce the burden that Boris Johnson has placed on them. The extent of the default level of physical inspections required by EU law on food of animal origin entering NI was explained by the Freight Transport Association (FTA). It involves inspecting 100 per cent of livestock, 30 per cent of red meat and poultry, with dairy and other meats at 15 per cent. Remember that Edwin Poot was asking if 1 per cent would be acceptable.

The FTA also told the committee that “Typical costs charged by the EU at present are €7 for documentation to be checked, €7 for the identification check of the load and €55 administration for a load up to 6,000kgs or €9 per 1,000kgs when over 6,000kgs.” It emphasised that over 425,000 lorries enter NI ports every year, which means “considerable administration, checks and inevitable costs for businesses.” But this was the UK government’s choice.

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) explained to committee members that from January 2021 there will be increased demand for veterinary certification for goods moving from the rest of the UK to the EU and the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland, but warned that “UK veterinary practices are already experiencing difficulties recruiting.” It added that the NI veterinary workforce is “heavily dependent on EU vets” and the new immigration system was leaving questions about whether “the workforce gap” created by the end of free movement could be filled.

And as the BVA says, “Exporters will require an export health certificate (EHC) signed by an official veterinarian to transport animals, germplasm and products of animal origin from Great Britain to the EU single market.” 

The association highlighted that some products of animal origin that include composite products like pizzas, quiches and pet food, “may require multiple EHCs to provide an audit trail of each individual ingredient”.

The GB-NI fishing trade will also be hard hit by the financial impact of EHCs, which can cost up to £200 each. The average daily load from one company alone is fifty pallets, perhaps on two trucks, collected from twelve different sources, each requiring a vet to issue one or more certificates under “extreme time pressure” and during antisocial hours. Another company, Whitby Seafoods, said that if, as a result of SPS and other checks and processes, the movement of products “was to be hindered to such an extent that we couldn’t ship fresh, we would require £1m+ investment and increased ongoing overheads to allow transfer to happen in frozen state, rather than fresh”.

The NI retail consortium posed several key questions on the movement of goods between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland: “What documents will be required, at what cost, and how administered? How will these processes work in practice? What systems will be set-up to allow these processes, and when?” Remember, this is six months before it all needs to be installed, tested and working seamlessly.

In addition to this lack of clarity on the government’s approach, Professor Joseph McMahon from University College Dublin explained to the committee that the EU “may well seek more substantive implementation of the protocol than that suggested by the government.”

Part of the infrastructure will be the goods vehicle movement service that Yorkshire Bylines reported on recently. The system will allow hauliers to pre-declare goods to ensure paperwork is correct before arriving at the port of embarkation.

The Guardian has been told that HMRC plans to trial the new and as yet unspecified system in November, which NI businesses feel is “perilously close to January’s full implementation deadline.” Yesterday’s announcement that a formal application is being delayed pending more ‘clarity’ will be greeted with huge concern.

Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh, MP for Sheffield Heeley, described the government delay in detailing the checks as “reckless”.

“Ministers wasted eight months insisting these checks would never be needed. With six months to go, businesses are still in the dark and the new system to manage these checks doesn’t yet exist,” she said.

“This level of incompetence and failure to prepare would be irresponsible at any time but, right now, it is completely reckless. Jobs have already been lost and their cavalier approach risks costing many more.”

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