Boris Johnson has sparked confusion after telling the UK parliament that there will be “no checks” between Northern Ireland and Britain under the new Brexit deal.
One opposition Labour MP suggested the prime minister had misled the House of Commons, and Johnson’s comments appeared to be at odds with statements from other ministers and officials.
Northern Ireland’s status is crucial to the Brexit saga. Unionists are furious over the new proposals they allege weaken the territory’s position as part of the United Kingdom. The question of possible extra checks and controls within the UK is highly sensitive.
Under the new protocol in the UK-EU divorce deal, Northern Ireland would leave the EU's customs union with the rest of the UK, which wants to pursue an independent trade policy. But, in practice, it would follow EU customs rules and remain aligned with some aspects of the EU's single market.
'No checks or tariffs'
On Monday (October 21) the UK Brexit minister acknowledged there would be extra bureaucracy for firms in Northern Ireland sending goods to the rest of the UK. Stephen Barclay admitted before a parliamentary committee – after initially denying it – that under the new deal, they would have to fill out export declaration forms.
His comments were slammed by opposition parties, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), until recently the government’s parliamentary allies.
On Wednesday Jeremy Corbyn challenged Boris Johnson in the House of Commons, claiming the proposed arrangements would create “a very real border down the Irish Sea”.
“The prime minister told the House of Saturday there would be no checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain,” the Labour leader said at Prime Minister’s Questions. “Yet yesterday the Brexit Secretary confirmed… that Northern Irish businesses sending goods to Britain would have to complete export declaration forms. Is the prime minister right on this, or is the Brexit Secretary right on this?”
“The United Kingdom is preserved whole and entire by these arrangements,” the prime minister replied, adding that the whole of the UK would come out of the EU customs union. “There will be no checks between Northern Ireland and GB, and there will be no tariffs between Northern Ireland and GB.”
Watch the exchange between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in the video player above.
His comments prompted a challenge outside parliament from Labour MP Stephen Doughty. “Surely Johnson just misled the house there…?” he asked via Twitter.
Other official statements on Wednesday called into question the prime minister’s assertion.
The Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith also admitted that there would be additional bureaucracy, but insisted it would be kept to a "minimum".
The deal would ensure that “we get Northern Ireland–GB goods flowing with absolute minimum amount of information required,” he told another committee. “To have delivered a deal where Northern Ireland maintains that soft border (with Ireland), comes out of the EU, and trades NI to GB and GB to NI… almost identical to as it is today, is a big achievement.”
The UK’s Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel – questioned on who would carry out exit checks between Northern Ireland and Britain – refused to be drawn. “The situation depends on various circumstances… I’m not going to speak about hypothetical situations right now,” she told the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
The head of the UK’s Border Force – the government body which carries out immigration and customs controls – said there may be checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Britain.
“There’ll be a minimum amount of electronic information which will have to shared on movements from west to east (Northern Ireland to GB),” Paul Lincoln told the same committee, "It is yet to be worked out in detail with the (European) Commission... in the Joint Committee process as to who will do those checks".
However, he added that checks may not be needed from west to east, as the situation was different for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Britain compared to those going in the opposite direction.
There will be checks – at least one way
On Thursday, the Home Office sent the committee a written clarification from Priti Patel. For goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland, she said: "For the protection of the single regulatory zone and consumers on the island of Ireland, and to ensure that the correct tariffs are applied, we will need information... Therefore, administrative procedures including a declaration will be required, which can be completed online."
For goods sent from Northern Ireland to Britain, the minister said the deal allowed "unfettered market access". "The UK does not, therefore, intend to carry out checks on such movements of goods. There will be a minimal administrative process which is designed to prevent, for example, trade in endangered species."
The committee's chair, Labour MP Yvette Cooper, tweeted to say "Home Office confirms there will be checks on goods between GB and Northern Ireland under Govt deal".
What do the documents say?
The government's Impact Assessment of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill indeed says "there will be no tariffs" (clause 251), and "no requirement for additional regulatory checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain (clause 259).
However, the situation is not the same concerning goods moving the other way. Goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland risk tougher controls, because of the possibility that they may then cross into Ireland and enter the EU.
The Impact Assessment says no tariffs will be paid on goods moving in this direction "unless they are deemed to be at risk of entering the EU" (clauses 249 and 253). As for goods regulation, several clauses (260-280) set out additional measures, including checks and physical inspections on agri-foods, and "risk-based checks on an 'adequate scale'" on manufactured goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.