Tories claim Brexit deal would not mean Irish sea admin – but expert says that’s wrong

The secretary of state has claimed that there will be no additional administration between Northern Ireland and Great Britain after Brexit – contradicting what a Cabinet colleague and trade experts have said.

Thursday, 28th November 2019, 10:17 am
Secretary of State Julian Smith, left, with Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly at the NI Conservatives’ manifesto launch in the Culloden Hotel

Julian Smith made the claim yesterday after launching the Northern Ireland Conservatives’ manifesto, which itself provides limited detail about what will happen as goods move across the Irish Sea.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay previously accepted that there would be “minimal” new administration involving electronic forms to be filled in by hauliers.

And the government’s own impact assessment setting out the implications of the deal set out more bluntly what will happen at the new internal UK frontier: “Goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be required to complete both import declarations and Entry Summary (ENS) Declarations because the UK will be applying the EU’s UCC in Northern Ireland.

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“This will result in additional administrative costs to businesses.”

Last night an eminent trade expert said that what Mr Smith had said was inconsistent with what is in the deal and a leading economist expressed scepticism about the claims.

The NI Conservatives’ manifesto — which has been signed off by party nationally — contains a section on the Brexit deal which is at the heart of this election. However, the Brexit deal section is only about half a page and contains no details about how the new Irish Sea checks would operate.

Instead, it refers to other things — including a commitment to devolve corporation tax powers to Stormont, despite concerns among some observers that the RHI scandal exposes Stormont’s inability to handle the powers which are already devolved.

What it does say about the new regime is: “There will never be any fees or tariffs on goods flowing between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and vice versa as they will be in a single customs territory”.

When asked by UTV political editor Ken Reid if there would be administration implications of the Brexit deal, Mr Smith said: “The prime minister has been very clear, you know. We’re not going to have anything. We’re going to make sure that there’s unfettered access into the UK market...”

Pressed again on whether there would be any additional administration between Northern Ireland and GB, he said: “No. No.”

When asked by the News Letter why people should take anything in the manifesto seriously when Boris Johnson has shown himself willing to repeatedly go back on his word, Mr Cleverly said: “What we have seen with the prime minister is someone who in the leadership campaign of the Conservative and Unionist Party made it clear that if he were elected he would re-open the withdrawal agreement and remove the Northern Irish backstop and he said that he would negotiate a small number of specific changes.

“He was elected as prime minister and as our party leader and set about doing exactly what he said he was going to do.”

When the News Letter put to Mr Cleverly that Mr Johnson had not done what he said he was going to do — but had instead abandoned his publicly pledge to never accept an Irish Sea border — the Tory chairman said: “You and I may well disagree on the interpretation of what the prime minister achieved in that negotiation was exactly what he set out: We re-open the withdrawal agreement, we remove the backstop, we made sure that the people of Northern Ireland could not have a regulatory regime or laws imposed upon them over which they did not have democratic say.

“That goes to the absolute heart of the relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain as a single United Kingdom.”

He added: “Where goods are coming from Northern Ireland into a third country, there will of course be the administrative environment that you would expect in any international movement of goods, but within the UK it is a single market; sorry - it is a single customs territory. And that is absolutely key.”

However, a trade expert said that goods moving between GB and Northern Ireland and vice versa will be subject to more administrative processes and many will have to pay tariffs under Boris Johnson’s sdeal.

Professor Alan Winters, director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory at Sussex University, told the News Letter that under the deal there would be “forms to fill in and in my interpretation the protocol certainly reads as if a substantial part of that will have to be followed by having to pay tariffs”.

When Mr Smith’s comments were put to the trade expert, he said: “I don’t think that’s correct unless they can persuade the EU to grant an exception a waiver to the [EU] customs code. Northern Ireland, according to the protocol, will be subject to the Union customs code and as I understand it that requires that there will be documentation of exports from NI to GB.”

He said that those procedures would be “fairly light” but would be a reality: “Coming from GB to NI, the situation is absolutely clear that goods that are at risk of being transferred to the Republic of Ireland will pay the EU tariff on entry into NI whether they come from GB or from anywhere else.”

Professor Winters said that his work on the subject pointed to well over half of trade from GB to NI being “at risk of transfer to the Republic and therefore subject to EU tariffs”.

Dr Esmond Birnie, Ulster University’s senior economist, said that some of the claims were “question begging”.

He said that the commitment to give Northern Ireland unfettered access to GB was “hard to square with Minister Barclay’s earlier statement to the Lords Committee re exit declarations”.

The NI Conservatives’ manifesto devotes a lengthy section to the legacy of the Troubles, pledging to never accept an amnesty.

It says that the Stromont House Agreement is “the most ambitious attempt thus far to address the legacy of the past” but concedes that despite what it says is “broad support” for it, “some concerns” have been expressed.

Tha manifesto also pledges intensive efforts to restore Stormont, stressing that they would “as appropriate” involve the Irish government “in full accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach”.

The Conservatives are standing four candidates in Northern Ireland – Gary Hynds (Lagan Valley), Matthew Robinson (North Down), Grant Abraham (Strangford) and Aaron Rankin (East Antrim).

Mr Abraham told yesterday’s launch in the Culloden Hotel at Cultra in North Down: “This is a land of promise, with clever hard-working people who see the dignity in work and teach their children the value of it.”

He accused the DUP and UUP of “breeding fear and insecurity about our place in the Union”.

He added: “The surest way to secure the Union is to build a strong and flourishing local economy which is not subject to fear and insecurity.”