Sam McBride: Farcically, Boris Johnson’s government is denying there will be an Irish Sea Border – even as it builds it with days to go

From January 1, when goods from Great Britain arrive in Larne Port they must be treated as though they are arriving from a foreign land. Photo: Charles McQuillan/GettyFrom January 1, when goods from Great Britain arrive in Larne Port they must be treated as though they are arriving from a foreign land. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty
From January 1, when goods from Great Britain arrive in Larne Port they must be treated as though they are arriving from a foreign land. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty
We are about to live through the implications of what happens when a prime minister misleads the public on an issue of profound societal significance and other parts of government desperately attempt to rectify the damage caused by that message.

In 27 days’ time an Irish Sea trade border whose complexity is without precedent will be erected.

Within 10 days, temporary buildings at the ports of Larne, Belfast and Warrenpoint should be in place while £40 million of permanent border infrastructure is built.

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On January 1, border checks begin between two parts of the United Kingdom and so will reams of new paperwork so cumbersome that even some veteran freight industry figures say they don’t understand it.

At that point the honeyed words of Boris Johnson and his ministers will count for nothing; their denial of what they endorsed in last year’s Withdrawal Agreement will not reverse the economic or constitutional reality of what will be in place.

Some aspects of this border may be ameliorated by a UK-EU trade deal which could be agreed in coming days. But even in that best case scenario, the new border will exist – and as over time the UK and EU standards diverge, it will harden.

Once the constitutional principle of an internal UK border is accepted, gradually hardening that border will be far easier to achieve – not least because Northern Ireland represents less than 3% of the UK population and just 0.4% of the EU population.

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As recently as August, Boris Johnson absurdly insisted on a visit to Belfast that “There will be no border down the Irish Sea – over my dead body”. As he spoke, officials were working on the border checks he insists will not exist.

Even in the unlikely event that Mr Johnson was somehow to keep his promise and sacrifice his life to attempt to stop what he legislated for becoming reality, it would not prevent the border being erected. Already some British companies have stopped offering their products to Northern Ireland consumers, unable to face the costly red tape.

From next month, goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK will be treated as though they are entering the EU from a foreign land. Any animal product will now have to have an expensive Export Health Certificate which can only be filled out by trained vets.

All commercial goods coming into NI from GB – including internet shopping – will need a costly customs declaration. Import VAT will be due on goods that enter Northern Ireland from GB or vice versa and food sold here will have to comply with EU labelling rules.

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And those are just some of the changes. An HMRC email from six weeks ago which was leaked to the News Letter sets out the dizzying complexity of the new regime.

One paragraph laced with jargon gives a sense of the red tape: “In the majority of cases TSS will use CFSP simplified customs procedures to reduce port processing times. The ENS (safety and security) declaration is used to initiate the frontier process and generate the SFD (Simplified Frontier Declaration). Hauliers visit the TSS portal to enter basic load information, TSS auto-generates the ENS and returns the MRN (Movement Reference Number) to the user. By enriching this data with information provided during the registration process TSS also generates the SFD and passes this additional MRN back to the user thus enabling them to obtain their GMR (Goods Movement Record). The final customs declaration (supplementary declaration) takes place after the goods have arrived and without the haulier needing to fully complete customs processes prior to delivery.

That headache-inducing verbiage went on for another three pages.

Even NI-GB trade – where the promises of unfettered trade were strongest – will only remain as it is if the EU agrees to waive the need for export declarations.

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Officials working under DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots – who took a crucial decision in September not to attempt to block work on the border – are also preparing for the mandatory charging of businesses for the new SPS border checks with those charges likely to be gradually phased in.

In sophistry illustrative of how sensitive the government is to describing the border as a border, one senior official working under Mr Poots said that he had stopped referring to ‘border control posts’ and was now describing them as “point of entry” facilities – even though both sets of terminology relate to precisely the same infrastructure.

Four weeks ago, the NIO press office sent an email to journalists to highlight that Whitehall department DEFRA had published information on new labelling requirements for Northern Ireland.

In a covering note, the NIO said that “businesses will need to make sure they are prepared for new rules that will apply” and added: “We’re keen to spread the news amongst manufacturers and other relevant businesses, to help them prepare for the new requirements, and would appreciate you raising awareness amongst your readers.”

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There was an unusual imploring tone to the email, suggesting concern in at least one part of government that many businesses in Northern Ireland are blissfully ignorant of what is coming.

The leaked HMRC email admitted that a vast volume of work had to be done but that “word of mouth, and trusted ‘ambassadors’ will be key”, arguing that “we do need an all hands on deck approach from UK trade associations and business groups, and their NI subsidiaries”, an almost begging tone from a powerful part of the Whitehall establishment usually far more assertive.

Business figures speak of serious unpreparedness in key areas, with even some large firms struggling to understand what they are meant to do while individual farmers are having to grapple with the same issues.

But why might businesses believe that all is well?

One of the most significant reasons for that belief must be that from the prime minister down, this government has repeatedly insisted that there will be no new border. In fact, just six weeks ago, the NIO said so in an unusual tweet.

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Writing in response to an article I had written about the looming border, the official NIO account wrote: “There will be no border in the Irish Sea between GB & NI. The NI Protocol explicitly prevents the creation of one....”

Alex Thomas from the Institute for Government has cited that tweet as an example of “increasing abuse of official communications”, and highlighted that government Twitter accounts “are funded by the taxpayer for the purpose of informing the public – not misleading them”.

The NIO denial of the looming border is particularly absurd when in the weeks prior to that statement Mr Johnson’s government had been privately putting pressure on Mr Poots to allow the construction of ‘Border Control Posts’ in Larne, Belfast and Warrenpoint.

Self-evidently, border control posts only exist where there is a border. Ironically, while one part of the government is telling the public there will be no border, another part of government is advertising for the jobs of those who will oversee the border it says will not exist.

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Meanwhile, a senior official in Stormont’s Department of Agriculture said that DEFRA has been looking at how products could enter Northern Ireland on January 1 without Export Health Certificates, something which some Stormont officials believe would leave them legally vulnerable.

Speaking in Kent a year ago, the Prime Minister said: “There will be no checks on goods from GB to Northern Ireland or Northern Ireland to GB.” Even at that point, leaked government documents showed that officials were saying that was clearly wrong.

A leaked Treasury assessment said that Mr Johnson’s deal would mean Northern Ireland “symbolically separated from the Union” and the “economic union undermined”. Bluntly, it said that the new Irish Sea border would be “highly disruptive” to the Northern Ireland economy and “high street goods are likely to increase in price”.

As taxpayers, we are paying for both parts of a government which is working against itself – and we are also the guinea pigs who will suffer the most if this dishonest form of governance ends in disaster.

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