Don’t listen to the doom-mongers – why the UK (including Northern Ireland) can leave the Customs Union, avoid a hard border and preserve the Good Friday Agreement

April 26, 2018

In the last few months, the issue of the Irish border has been used and abused by those who see it as the best last hope to frustrate Brexit. Yet very few of those who have expressed grave concern over the matter have spent much time familiarising themselves with the details. The issue is complicated but it is not insoluble.

The prophets of doom have been at work in London and Brussels. Anna Soubry MP has said the only way to avoid a hard border – and threats to the Good Friday Agreement – is for the UK to remain in the Customs Union. Michel Barnier has said ‘It’s important to tell the truth – a UK decision to leave the Single Market and Customs Union would make border checks unavoidable’.

So as pressure mounts today in Westminster to force the UK Government to stay within the Customs Union, the EU Commission and the Irish Government are working in tandem to support their Remainer allies in London, using the Irish border as their weapon.

Why a border in the Irish Sea would not be good for either Ulster or the Republic

Using their December Joint Report on phase one issues, both the EU and Dublin are insisting that should all else fail, then Northern Ireland will be required to remain inside the EU Customs Union and the Single Market, if the UK leaves the Customs Union. Its regulatory framework, across all areas, would be set in Brussels and not by Westminster. This would mean detaching Northern Ireland economically from the rest of the United Kingdom. It would, in essence, require a customs border in the Irish Sea.  This is what the Irish Government is calling the Backstop option.

However, a border in the Irish Sea between the islands of Ireland and Britain is certainly not in Ireland’s interests, nor is the present prominence given to Ireland in the Remainers’ plan in the long-term interests of Ireland.  Whatever the political importance of avoiding a hardening of the land border on the island of Ireland, east/west connections across the Irish Sea are much more important economically to both jurisdictions than intra-island trade.

It is estimated that around 1.6% of the Republic’s exports are to Northern Ireland, while 10 times that amount is exported to Great Britain. In addition, 80% of the Irish State’s total exports use the UK transport system to access world markets.  It would be sheer folly for the Dublin Government to insist on the Backstop, as in the final analysis no British Government, and especially this one, a Tory Administration dependent on DUP support, could agree to a Backstop and survive.  To push this option to its most intransient conclusion risks scuppering the wider EU/UK deal, with consequent serious impairment of the Irish economy.

The best policy option, and by far the most logical, would be for Ireland to work hard on the EU side to agree to a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Brussels and the UK, with no tariffs and the minimum of red tape.  Ireland should also be lobbying for an arrangement to allow for a mutual recognition regime between the custom services of the UK and the EU.  This approach already has the support of the British Government. Now is the time to get Brussels to fully sign up.

The imposition of a border in the Irish Sea would also bring about greater Unionist alienation and would raise questions about the sincerity of the Irish Government’s oft proclaimed interest in their welfare.  If the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and the commitment to parity of esteem for both traditions in Northern Ireland is to mean anything, then the Irish Government should abandon its aggressive championing of an option, which would have the effect of isolating Unionists from their fellow British citizens in Great Britain.

Northern Ireland’s main outside market is in Great Britain and putting custom and regulatory barriers between it and its primary trading partner seems completely against the interest of the people living there. The value of Northern Ireland’s trade with Great Britain is much greater than with the Republic.

In fact it is hard to find any rational argument in favour of a maritime border in the Irish Sea.  It is being put forward for the sole purpose of scuppering the outcome of the referendum on Brexit. For those espousing this option, it should be fully realised that they are on a course which could be extremely detrimental to Ireland’s interests.

Can a hard land border be avoided in Ireland?

The avoidance of physical infrastructure at the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has become the main sticking point in the Brexit negotiations. The UK has promised a frictionless border and explained that this means no physical infrastructure at the border, and the Irish Government and EU have demanded as much as a condition for agreeing a post-Brexit implementation period and talks about future trade negotiations.

The reasons for these demands and promises stem from a fear that new physical infrastructure at the Irish land border will be unpopular both north and south in Ireland, is likely to be widely evaded and may attract violent opposition. Claims that there is a threat to ‘peace’ in Northern Ireland, made by Tony Blair and John Major among many others, are now discounted after rebuttals by Gerry Adams and Colum Eastwood, leader of Northern Ireland’s SDLP. The possibility that new infrastructure, including cameras, will be attacked remains.

The UK Position Paper of August 2017 proposed that electronic means could be adopted to enforce customs regulations without infrastructure at the border and without stopping either individuals or traders.  The Common Travel Area, now agreed for the post-Brexit era, ensures free movement for individuals. The UK proposals for commerce involve trusted trader arrangements (already standard at EU borders), customs clearance by computer (again already standard), electronic border checking and customs exemptions for small traders.

All of these can be achieved although exemptions for small traders will be an innovation for the EU. Even though there is no existing example of a border without physical infrastructure, the EU’s own customs expert Lars Karlsson, former head of the World Customs Association, advises that new technology means that future borders can move beyond current practice. Jon Thompson, head of HMRC, and his counterpart in Dublin both agree that a frictionless border is completely possible.

Although number plate recognition cameras at the border could be vulnerable to dissident paramilitary attack, alternative technologies could include GPS and mobile phones within trucks. Consignments pre-cleared on a standard computer system could be monitored as they crossed the border without any stationary infrastructure. The number of HGVs crossing the border daily is less than 6,000, half of them on the main Dublin-Belfast road.

Such technology does not however fully address the problem and two further issues remain. One is rules of origin and third country imports, the other is animal health and other product regulations.


An FTA between the UK and EU will avoid tariffs on all or most goods produced in each area, but goods originating in third countries may be liable to tariffs. Some goods largely consisting of third country components may also incur duties. All of this is currently cleared through customs electronically. Very few checks occur at borders – only 0.5% of consignments in the case of non-EU imports into the EU. At the Port of Bristol only a handful have been opened by customs in the last two years. Almost all physical checks are based on intelligence and as such can take place away from borders.


Smuggling is of course possible, especially on Ireland’s maze of minor roads criss-crossing the border. Such smuggling occurs today due to differences in excise duties on fuel, tobacco and alcohol, and is addressed by police and customs officials without border controls. An FTA will mean few new incentives for smuggling. However, any future divergence in regulations on such matters as animal health and food safety may lead to new opportunities for smuggling. An example might be hormone treated beef imported into GB and transported unchecked into Northern Ireland and across the Irish land border into the EU. There is a sensible argument for treating the island of Ireland as a regulatory unit for animal health and food safety issues. Checks are already in place at the Irish Sea border for animal diseases such as rabies, and these could be extended without any real constitutional issues of the sort that unionists would object to.


The avoidance of tariffs or product regulations would be illegal and can be addressed through normal judicial means. The idea of enforcing controls through border checks is a convenience for customs authorities but is becoming an anachronism due to modern technology. Good co-operation between the Irish and UK authorities, as between Swedish and Norwegian customs officials or French, German, Austrian Italian and Swiss officials could make this work.


To achieve a frictionless border the UK has a second proposal on the table, called ‘the new customs partnership’, involving a complex scheme by which UK customs would collect EU tariffs and rebate them for UK destinations for cases in which duties were lower. Consignments would be tracked to ensure that they reached the reported destination. This scheme deals with the rules of origin issues but has been rejected by the EU as overly complex and costly, and because the EU does not want duties collected outside its own jurisdiction. It is unnecessarily complicated and should be dropped in favour of the simpler UK proposals for electronic customs clearing.

All of the UK proposals are currently rejected by the EU which sees continued UK membership of the EU customs union as the solution to border problems in Ireland and elsewhere. This view is echoed by prominent Remainers within the UK. Leaving the EU while remaining within the customs union would however be nonsensical for the UK. No independent country other than Turkey has devolved its trade policy to a foreign power. The Turks did so from a position of weakness, in the (probably mistaken) belief that the customs union was a precursor to full EU membership. In any case membership of the customs union does not avoid border controls or long delays as any traveller between Turkey and the EU can testify. The EU claims that special arrangements at the Irish border would set a precedent for Turkey, but since the EU’s draft Withdrawal Agreement already treats Northern Ireland as a special, indeed unique, case, this claim should be viewed as possessing little weight.

Why the Good Friday Agreement is in relatively good health

In many ways, support for the Good Friday Agreement is stronger now than when it was first brokered. The DUP – who opposed the Agreement in 1998 – now either speak in favour of it, or at worst in neutral terms. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, who reserved their judgement at the time, now support it.

Secondly, the Agreement was put front and centre of the agreement last December between the UK and EU on the next phase of the Brexit negotiations. Both sides recognised that Brexit could not be allowed to jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland.

Another reason to be optimistic is that there are signs that the DUP and Sinn Fein are preparing for another major push to break the deadlock with a compromise to restore the power-sharing executive at Stormont. Such a breakthrough would show that the province – and the Agreement – are stronger than any challenge presented by Brexit.

The signs are that the Border issue can be resolved. Talk about guns and beatings returning with a hard border have greatly reduced. Concern over the loss of ‘Peace money’ which came as a result of the Good Friday Agreement – it represents 1% of the funds which flow directly from the UK to Northern Ireland – would seem to be of little real impact.

Yet despite these reasons for optimism, there are certain issues that must be addressed to secure the long-term health of the Agreement. Undeniably, the Brexit vote has raised tensions between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. Support for Irish nationalism from Catholics has risen – as the latter fear Brexit marks the return of an aggressive English/British nationalism.

The UK Governments of the 1990s have not helped their successors. Many promises were made by London to nationalists in Northern Ireland regarding increased engagement with the EU. In March 1993, as part of the push to get republicans ‘over the line’ to peace, elements within the British state made noises – however inaccurate – that ultimately the long-term future belonged to a united Ireland within a united Europe. Having had their expectations thus set, Irish nationalists are finding it difficult to adjust to the new reality. So as the UK seeks a new relationship with the EU, it must be mindful of the sentiment of some in Ulster – particularly the nationalist faction.

To ensure the Good Friday Agreement is maintained over the long term it is important that Northern Ireland returns to the stability of two years ago. To this end, it is important that Stormont and other institutions are restored quickly. The quicker things get back to normal, the faster tensions will begin to ease.

Evidence of economic progress and calm at the border will also be important in assuring people that the Good Friday Agreement is in robust health. This will boost confidence in the future – and help to ensure we mark the 30th anniversary of peace in Northern Ireland.

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