Katy Hayward and Tony Smith / May 2020
Larne Port, Co Antrim. Photo: Shutterstock
The revised Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement places Northern Ireland in a wholly unique position vis-à-vis the EU and – more surprisingly – vis-à-vis the rest of the UK. It has implications for Northern Ireland’s politics; this is inevitable, given its symbolic and practical significance for the Union). It has implications for its laws, given its continued alignment with swathes of EU regulations and legislation. It has implications for its economy, given that it places the region in a different relationship to the rest of the UK internal market. And it has implications for the management of its borders.
The Protocol doesn’t avoid the fact that the Irish land border will become ‘harder’ for the movement of services and people after the end of the transition period. However, it avoids the Irish border becoming a barrier to the movement of goods by shifting that border eastwards, into the Irish Sea so to speak. The Protocol means that the goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, although still within the UK, are (as a baseline) to be treated as leaving a ‘third country’ and entering the EU’s single market and custom union.
This means the creation of a new internal border within the UK. How ‘hard’ or ‘wide’ this is depends a lot on the future UK-EU relationship. But we know that this will mean additional border checks and controls, at minimum for live animals and agri-foods. And these, in turn, mean a border management system is required that is quite new in terms of location and scope.
This has big implications and political ramifications –which helps to explain why it is that the UK government has been so slow to share details of how it proposes to implement the Protocol (although we expect a paper to be submitted by the UK this week on this very subject).
Amid all the politics, there is a risk of losing sight of what is at stake in terms of those most directly affected. For this reason, we consider the problem in a constructive way. The Protocol entails a major change in the management of borders within the UK. Why not manage it as well as possible? Using lessons from the rollout of new border management systems elsewhere, we outline three high-level principles that the UK Government would do well to bear in mind.
The first principle is that of partnership. Border management is complicated. The challenge will not only be in the hands of UK Border Force. A wide spectrum of actors will be involved: police, customs, policy specialists, data analysts, market surveillance authorities, veterinarians, freight hauliers, ferry operators… And that’s before you even begin to consider the diverse array of those (from massive supermarkets to small farmers) who will have new procedures to implement just in order to keep buying from and selling to the same people as before.
Because it is so complicated, the system to manage it needs to be carefully designed and finely tuned. And for this reason partnership needs to be built with those who will be responsible for operating the system. The focus should not be on the highest levels but on those whose livelihoods depend on it working well. Ideally, to use the buzz phrase, you need to ‘co-create’ the system, hand in hand with the importing/exporting industry. Bring them in from the start, and understand what it is that they need. In short, collaboration holds the key to success.
Building a relationship of trust and respect between government agencies and industry is a good thing to do. This is not just because it is imperative that the system meets their requirements but also because it is a relationship that needs to endure. And that trust can reap rewards in due course. If businesses know that the system has been designed to best facilitate trade, then in the future they will be more likely to tell you about holes or wrinkles or breaches in that system that prevent it from working effectively.
The second principle is that of cross-border cooperation. There is plenty of evidence to show that you don’t need to be in a political union to have good border management. What you do need, however, is a good bilateral or multilateral agreement and a level of confidence and trust between the parties.
And the more ‘open’ the borders around Northern Ireland, the greater the need for cooperation between the agencies involved in border management on either sides of those borders. Communication and collaboration needs to be valued and enhanced between departments/agencies in the different parts of the UK. And there is an urgent need to reinforce the good working relationship that already exists between the Irish Revenue Commissioners and UK Border Force especially given the rapidly-changing environment in which such cooperation can occur.
The third principle is that of preparation. UK Border Force will have overall responsibility for conducting any regulatory checks and inspections on the GB/NI routes, in tandem with a range of experts from other agencies. No change to ‘our way of doing things’ can happen overnight without a period of ‘getting used to it’.
And because there has been no history of taking and compiling detailed records of goods movement between GB and Northern Ireland, the information we have to start with is incomplete. In order to have enough data to work out what is trivial and what is significant when it comes to unexpected movements or increase in traffic, there needs to be a system in place to capture data early. Future checks and searches have to be based on intelligence, not mere suspicion. This is even more reason for government and industry to work together to facilitate compliant trade and traffic routes, whilst simultaneously ensuring compliance. Delays only deepen the risks.
Balancing the need to protect the EU’s single market alongside securing the UK’s internal market will be a delicate one. We must minimise the administrative burden and costs of increased friction on trade across the Irish Sea to avoid gratuitous damage to businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland – a region that has for too long and too often been subject to wanton harm. Meanwhile, the need for partnership, cross-border cooperation and preparation only intensifies. More than a tricky political challenge, the task of meeting these principles is a responsibility for the EU as well as the UK.
Further analysis can be found here: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2020/05/15/making-the-irish-sea-border-work-will-require-partnership-cross-border-cooperation-and-preparation/