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Seeking clarity for customs in Northern Ireland

We are all aware that the UK is now a third country to the EU and as such goods moving to and from the UK to the EU will be subject to additional customs documentary and physical security requirements. Hence, goods going to and coming from the Republic of Ireland to the UK will be part of a new customs regime and may be liable for tariffs – depending on the trade agreement that is hopefully currently being forged.

What is causing confusion is the treatment and inclusion of Northern Ireland within the future relationship and in the interim. The Withdrawal Agreement agreed by Prime Minister May’s premiership hoped to set out how that important future relationship would be handled by the EU and the rest of the UK. Yet, the subsequent revised Northern Ireland command protocol on withdrawal and some confusing public political remarks have made the future position a little opaquer. Concern has also been raised whether the ‘say’ that Northern Ireland will have in the years after the transition as to if it still consents to the trade terms under which it operates, will ultimately lie in the province or with the UK Government, as the exit strategy is formulated.

The overwhelming aim for trade and politics is to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. To achieve that aim the new Northern Ireland Protocol has amended parts of Prime Minister May’s Withdrawal Agreement and tried to build upon other parts.

In essence, Northern Ireland will remain part of the customs territory of the UK – as expected – and be part of the negotiations in any future trade agreements. This is different to the previous withdrawal agreement proposal whereby Northern Ireland would have remained within the customs territory of the EU bound by the Customs union and certain Single Market rules. Under new plans, goods moving from the British mainland to Northern Ireland will not be subject to tariffs and vice versa but maybe subject to customs checks. As important, is that goods moving from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland (and in the opposite direction) will also be free of tariffs unless there is a danger of goods moving subsequently onwards to other EU member states whereupon either the EU Common External Tariff or UK Global Tariff will have to be applied. – hence a dual tariff regime if duty rates and final destinations differ. What exactly those goods ‘at risk’ of being moved onwards are and how they will be monitored will be the subject of further negotiation and clarification.

Further, Northern Ireland will be obliged to maintain EU standards in-line with EU regulations for agricultural products, technical regulations and manufacturing processes to ensure compatibility with the EU Single Market. However, this is naturally going to generate documentary requirements and invasive physical checks which the UK are seeking to minimise – even if only for animal and food transportation.

Furthermore, because of the need to identify ‘at risk goods’ heading for other EU member states beyond the Republic of Ireland, there will still have to be a degree of checks and paperwork presented either at the frontier or ahead of any movement to enable a risk-based analysis and help border officials identify those at risk movements.

No doubt clarity will emerge as we push on with the Transition period but there are still too many subjective unknowns clouding how the province will operate in practice not theory.

On 11th June 2020 HMRC launched a survey those businesses to identify themselves as being impacted by the command protocol. This is a welcome first step and we advise all businesses within Northern Ireland involved in cross border trade or whom regularly trade with the province from the mainland to take the opportunity to register and likewise become involved in voicing their opinion.

www.gov.uk/hmrc/NIGBquestionnaire