A hard Brexit would make a hard border “inevitable” between Northern Ireland and Ireland, MPs have warned

Border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and at Holyhead, Milford Haven and Fishguard, appear “inevitable”, if the government sticks to its hard Brexit plan to leave the single market and customs union, according to the Exiting the European Union Committee.

The committee’s latest report welcomes the government’s commitment to no physical infrastructure at the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

It also welcomes the rejection of a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but questions whether the policy is achievable.

Pointing out that the border has “a continuous flow of lorries” between Ireland and Northern Ireland and over 200 crossing points with no customs controls at present, it stated: “We do not currently see how it will be possible to reconcile there being no border with the government’s policy of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union.

"This will inevitably make the border, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the EU’s customs border with the UK; including the land border in Northern Ireland and at the ports of Holyhead, Milford Haven and Fishguard that provide freight services to and from the Republic of Ireland.”

The committee also questioned the government’s proposals for a “frictionless” border.

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The first option proposed by the government is for a streamlined customs arrangement using technology, whilst the second proposes a customs partnership with no EU/UK customs border, with the UK remaining outside of the Single Market and free to strike trade agreements.

Noting that “the government’s proposals, by its own admission, are untested and to some extent speculative”, the report calls on the government to set out in more detail how a “frictionless” border can in practice be maintained with the UK outside the Single Market and the Customs Union”.

Concern in Northern Ireland

Seamus Leheny, FTA policy manager for Northern Ireland told MT the current uncertainty created by Brexit is hitting Northern Ireland hauliers hard, with members reporting that some customers are putting expansion plans on hold. Others are looking to shift their businesses across the border into Ireland.

He added: “With warehousing cheaper in Northern Ireland than in Ireland, there are a lot of retailers distributing from Northern Ireland to Ireland and receiving goods from the UK and the Far East.

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"But if this means they will have to make customs declarations every time they cross the border it no longer makes economic sense.

“If there has to be a declaration for every load crossing the border and a certificate of origin, the cost of administration fees and the additional staff required to process that will be huge and will have to be passed onto the customer.”

Leheny also questioned the feasibility of maintaining an effective border. “The percentage of trucks that will be inspected will probably have to drive to a designated inspection point as there are hundreds of border crossings between Ireland and Northern Ireland and there can’t be border controls at every point, so the effect on fuel consumption, delayed journey times and drivers hours will be significant.”

“If the whole of Ireland could stay in the customs union that would make life a lot easier for our members but politically that is probably not an option”, Leheny added, pointing to strong opposition from the DUP, whose support the Conservative government relies on to maintain a parliamentary majority in the UK.

“These are very worrying times for our members," Leheny said. “These challenges should have been researched and made known before the EU referendum.

"A lot of hauliers who voted to leave the EU are telling me that had they known of these problems, which are only coming to light now, they would never have voted for Brexit.”