BrexitCentral: Regulatory divergence does not require a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic

7 December 2017

Questions about post-Brexit regulatory alignment of Northern Ireland with the EU has somehow become entangled with the prospect of the reconstruction of a hard border between the Province and the Republic, and this has confused everyone participating in the debate, including the leading decision-makers.

The issue of whether or not a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will ever again be required is a matter for those responsible for customs administration on a day-to-day basis, which in the UK is primarily HMRC. HMRC has been studying the impact of Brexit – including the prospects of no-deal – since just after the referendum and have given evidence on seven occasions to parliamentary Select Committees. On one occasion, in describing how the great bulk of trade that passes through ports was pre-cleared electronically, their Chief Executive, Jon Thompson, pointed out that they physically inspected only 0.5% of imports from non-EU countries.

In his last outing to the Select Committee on Exiting the EU on 28th November, Mr Thompson was questioned specifically about the Northern Ireland border with the Republic, which he described as trade within “a very local economy” to which the normal EU border arrangements could not be applied. Having identified in precise details various ways in which pre-clearance and control over the present invisible and frictionless border could be further improved, he declared: “We do not believe, and this has been our consistent advice to ministers, we do not believe we require any infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland under any circumstances.”

One member started by saying “whatever happens, you’re confident there won’t be any requirement for an infrastructure between Ireland and Northern Ireland?” to which Mr Thompson answered “Yes” before the questioner went on to identify what he hoped would be an intractable problem – smuggling. Like other questions, it also failed to change the main conclusion.

To read Michael Burrage’s piece for BrexitCentral in full, click here.

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