The chairman of the NI Affairs Committee has challenged claims by the head of the Province’s civil service that there would be an upsurge in smuggling and damage to businesses in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
David Sterling made the comments in a letter to the Northern Ireland Office just before Christmas.
According to the BBC, he wrote: “Our companies will need clarity on what obligations they will face, and a realistic projection of whether the approach we take in the next few months will be sustainable.”
He said that even if the UK and Republic do not impose border checks, businesses would still face new legal obligations, especially in relation to customs.
In that situation they would either try to comply with their legal obligations “leading to the certain loss of some economic activity” due to customs tariffs.
Or, they might not comply “leading to the likelihood of a step change in the scale and significance of smuggling and organised crime”.
Mr Sterling concluded that “in practice we will probably see both of these behaviours arising”.
But Tory MP Andrew Murrison, chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, challenged Mr Sterling. His committee has taken extensive evidence on the impact of Brexit on the border in the past year, and has taken exhaustive evidence on border smuggling over the past decade.
“Civil servants must plan for all eventualities, including worst-case scenarios,” Dr Murrison said, “although it’s difficult to see why smuggling would increase further unless and until there’s regulatory or tariff divergence between the UK and EU.”
He added that the current UK-EU regulatory and tariff harmony will remain in place immediately after Brexit and that any change will take a long time.
Committee member Ian Paisley also challenged Mr Sterling.
“The fact is smuggling has been prolific throughout our membership of the EU and Mr Stirling has done nothing about it throughout that period,” he said.
“I welcome his interest and look forward to him now addressing a subject many of us have spoken about for decades.”
He said that evidence that smuggling is already a major issue came from Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s letter to the committee in July, which confirmed that illicit diesel made up 6% of the total NI diesel market in 2016/17.
East Antrim DUP MP Sammy Wilson called on Mr Sterling to explain his “politically charged letter” saying it was “light on fact but heavy on political scaremongering” and that it called into question his impartiality.
“Of course there will be smuggling,” Mr Wilson said. “However, for anyone to suggest that major supermarkets are going to buy agri-food produce from some border black-market is simply nonsense. Retailers will require proper traceability.
“If Mr Sterling is going to make such politically charged statements, then he needs to back up them up with fact and be prepared to debate them in an open forum instead of hiding behind inter-departmental letters.”
A spokesman for Mr Sterling said it would “not be appropriate to comment on leaked correspondence”.
HM Revenue and Customs offered no direct comment on Mr Sterling’s claim, but said the UK remains committed to avoiding a hard border while upholding the integrity of the whole UK.