Confusion reigns on whether NI can be staging post for Ireland-GB trade

Belfast Harbour
Belfast Harbour

There has been a flurry of confusion over a major aspect of the government’s plan for tariff-free Irish imports in the event of ‘no deal’.

Under the plan, exporting directly from the RoI to Great Britain means firms will face tariffs on their agricultural goods.

However, it is not clear to what extent RoI companies will be able to continue trading for free with Great Britain just so long as they route their goods through NI ports.

This would basically make the Province a ‘staging post’ for all Irish agricultural trade with the rest of the UK.

Differing interpretations of the issue abounded throughout today.

The stakes could be huge – it would mean the difference between RoI farmers being granted free assess merely to the Northern Ireland market, or to the entire UK market.

For example the Freight Transport Association said: “Northern Ireland could become a smuggling channel to avoid tariffs. In essence we are looking at an honesty box on the border.”

But if firms can indeed just legally export Irish goods tariff-free to GB via NI, then no such smuggling concerns apply.

The News Letter asked HMRC, which will ultimately police such arrangements, whether the tariff-free arrangement for goods going from the RoI to NI would also apply to RoI goods destined for the GB market which transit via Northern Ireland.

In other words, could a Monaghan meat firm move its goods directly to a Glasgow buyer without being subject to tariffs, so long as they move the goods through an NI port?

HMRC responded that yes, this would indeed be the case.

However it is understood that the Department for International Trade’s policy on the exact same issue is that diverting through Northern Ireland solely to avoid tariffs would be unlawful – although goods are not going to be subject to checks anyway.

The government has said its whole plan on tariffs is meant to be “strictly temporary”.

DUP MP Nigel Dodds said that it should re-think its approach to tariff-free Irish goods into Northern Ireland “if the Republic and the EU don’t reciprocate on that”.

However, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, voiced concern about the fact any tariffs at all are to be introduced on Irish agriculture by the UK government.

This, he said “will be very damaging and we’ll need to respond to that appropriately”.

Angela McGowan, director of business lobby group the CBI NI, felt the UK government plan would leave Ireland “no option but to apply EU tariffs on all goods coming from the UK,” spelling “substantive checks” at the Irish border.