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Brexit: Is Boris Johnson telling the truth about Northern Ireland border checks?

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Brexit: Is Boris Johnson telling the truth about Northern Ireland border checks?
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This article originally published in October has been updated to take account of the controversy surrounding the prime minister’s latest comments.

Boris Johnson has repeated claims that there will be “no checks” between Northern Ireland and Britain under his new Brexit deal – despite evidence to the contrary from trade experts, official documents, and the text of the divorce deal itself.

His comments are important because arrangements for Northern Ireland go to the heart of the Brexit debate – and are crucial to future EU-UK trade and arguably to the territory’s place in the United Kingdom.

They are also fundamental to the question of trust in the prime minister, which has emerged as one of the key themes in the election campaign. Such is Boris Johnson’s reputation that when he claimed during a TV debate that truth mattered, the audience laughed.

A reminder – what does the revised Brexit deal say?

The new deal enabled the prime minister to get the controversial backstop guarantee struck out of the EU withdrawal agreement. This switched the focus from the future UK-EU border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, to the internal UK relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

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.

Unionists are furious at proposals they allege weaken the territory’s position as part of the United Kingdom, creating a “border down the Irish Sea”. The question of possible extra checks and controls within the UK is highly sensitive.

What has Boris Johnson actually said?

On Friday (December 6) the prime minister was asked about a leaked UK Treasury document on the impact of the Brexit deal on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland. It says there would be checks relating to customs, rules of origin, and regulatory standards. “That’s complete nonsense,” Boris Johnson replied.

He followed up in an interview for Sky News, insisting to Sophy Ridge on Sunday that he was telling the truth over his assurances about bureaucracy. You can view the interview and read the transcript.

The prime minister said his renegotiated divorce agreement with the EU was a “brilliant deal” because “it allows the whole of the UK to come out of the EU including Northern Ireland”.

Asked whether the Treasury document, the government's own impact assessment and the Brexit Secretary were wrong, and he was right, the prime minister replied "yes".

“There’s no question of there being checks on goods going NI/GB or GB/NI,” Johnson said. “The whole of the UK comes out of the EU. Why would we put checks on goods going from NI to GB or GB to NI? It doesn’t make sense.”

East-West trade: from Britain to Northern Ireland

“The only checks that there would be, would be if something was coming from GB via Northern Ireland and was going on to the Republic, then there might be checks at the border into Northern Ireland,” Boris Johnson told Sky.

What the documents say: 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 Treasury document suggests that the risk of products entering the EU means that checks are likely even if products are destined to stay in Northern Ireland. A list of “potential fetters” includes tariffs, customs import declarations, rules of origin, and regulatory checks.

Northern Ireland is due to remain part of a “single regulatory zone” with the Irish Republic, in which EU rules will apply. EU law requires checks at the border on all food and animal products.

The government's Impact Assessment of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill 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.

West-East trade: from Northern Ireland to Britain

Addressing business concerns on a visit to Northern Ireland in November, the prime minister categorically told one company that it would not have to fill in customs declarations for goods leaving Northern Ireland for Britain. “If somebody asks you to do that, tell them to ring up the prime minister, and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin,” Johnson said. “There will be no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind. You will have unfettered access.”

The prime minister defended his comments when questioned by Sophy Ridge. Asked whether he was telling the truth about checks and forms, despite the government document that said otherwise, Johnson replied "yes I am".

"So there will be checks?" Ridge followed up. "No, absolutely not," was the prime minister's response.

What the documents say: Article 6 of the revised protocol on Northern Ireland, part of the Brexit deal, says nothing shall prevent unfettered access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to other parts of the UK’s internal market. However, it qualifies this statement by alluding to potential restrictions, and says controls should be avoided "to the extent possible".

The Treasury document says there are potential fetters to east-west trade, over safety and security and in the form of customs export declarations.

The government's Impact Assessment of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill 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).

What the ministers say: The UK's Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay has acknowledged (see below) that firms in Northern Ireland sending goods to the rest of the UK will have to fill out export declaration forms. The interior minister Priti Patel (see below) has said there will be a "minimal administrative process".

'Highly disruptive'

The Treasury document says customs checks will be “highly disruptive” to Northern Ireland’s economy and could “symbolically” separate Northern Ireland from the UK. The vast majority – 98% – of exporters to Britain are “likely to struggle to bear this cost”, it says.

A group representing manufacturing companies in Northern Ireland says Johnson's latest comments flie in the face of the evidence.

"The document is there in black and white," said Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI, citing the Treasury's paper and the government's impact assessment of the Brexit deal. "All those make it clear that if the UK decides to leave on the deal that's been negotiated, then there will be checks and controls," he told BBC Radio.

The Financial Times claims that another document – from the UK’s Brexit ministry, the Department for Exiting the EU – infers that Northern Ireland may not have the systems and infrastructure in place by the end of the planned transition period in December 2020, to cope with new trading arrangements.

“We’ve looked at this deal and in many respects, it’s been like an onion for us. Every time you peel away a layer, our eyes water just that little bit more,” Stephen Kelly said. "The challenge that we have now is that should the Conservative Party become the party of government then we have a responsibility to ensure that the prime minister’s words are held up in actions.”

Johnson accused of 'misleading' claims in October

Boris Johnson's latest assertions follow previous statements in October that were also called into question. Speaking after he struck the revised divorce deal with the EU, his remarks were at odds with those from other ministers and officials.

On 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's 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 October 23 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 October 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.

Official confusion...

Other official statements on October 23 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.

...followed by official clarification

On October 24, 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".

Brexit Guide: Where are we now – and how did we get here?