Government plays down May's plan to create 'customs partnership' arrangement on border issue

Government plays down May's plan to create 'customs partnership' arrangement on border issue
British prime Minister Theresa May.

The Irish Government has played down British Government plans to create a “customs partership” arrangement to solve the Irish border issue post Brexit.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is stepping up plans to tackle the Irish border question in Brexit talks through an audacious customs scheme once described as “magical thinking” in Brussels.

But as quickly as it has been floated, business leaders here and in Britain have said it is “unworkable”.

The scheme, which will be discussed with EU officials this month, would see the UK act as the external frontier for the EU, collecting tariffs and carrying out other checks on imports, but it could take many years to introduce.

A new ministerial group on Northern Ireland, including chancellor Philip Hammond, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington and Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley has been set up to oversee planning for the Irish border.

The “customs partnership” plan is one of two customs options being proposed by Mrs May, but the only one that would remove the need for customs checks at the Irish border. However, border checks would be required if Britain departed from EU regulatory standards.

The government has pledged to prevent a hard land border in Northern Ireland or a border in the Irish Sea after Brexit.

But the technological challenges involved in the “customs partnerships” are challenging, and trade experts say the scheme would take years to introduce, suggesting that Britain and the EU would have to remain aligned on customs for some time after 2021, the end of the transition deal.

Britain is promoting the “customs partnership” plan as the best way to avoid disruption at the ports, and the Irish border, since the UK would simply mirror the EU’s requirements for imports from the rest of the world.

In response, an Irish Government spokeswoman said the Taoiseach has consistently said his preferred solution to the border would be one based on a satisfactory overall EU-UK relationship.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Any solution will have to deliver on the commitment to avoid a hard border and protect north/south cooperation, while simultaneously protecting the EU’s single market and customs union. It will also need to be spelt out in legal detail, she said in a statement to the Irish Examiner.

“It is noted that advocates of a customs partnership acknowledge it would take a long time to negotiate and prepare for implementation. Pending agreement on the detail of any such solution, the backstop option of full regulatory alignment will have to be included in the Withdrawal Agreement,” the statement concluded.

Some importers are sceptical about Mrs May’s current favoured option of a customs partnership using futuristic technology to track goods.

“That option is really crazy, just not achievable, its sole purpose is to provide a political solution to the Irish issue,” said one business figure.

Jon Thompson, permanent secretary at HM Revenue & Customs, said last autumn that setting up an entirely new system that would be “best in class”, like Singapore, would take five to seven years.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has called on the Government to stand up to the British Conservative party on the convening of the British-Irish intergovernmental conference in Northern Ireland.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney have expressed their support for the establishment of such a forum, but London has so far resisted the requests.

Ms McDonald said the delay in doing so is proving to be “very damaging” and “not helpful”.

She added: “It is unwise for Dublin to allow the Tories to stall things to this extent and I really hope that when we return from the Easter recess that we see a new determination within Government to make that intergovernmental conference happen and to be quite insistent that we have a plan.”

Under an intergovernmental conference, the Government can have an input into non-devolved matters relating to the North.

Mr Coveney has raised the issue of the conference with Ms Bradley, but the British government has so far been non-committal.

A spokesman for the Tánaiste said the matter would be discussed with the Northern Secretary at a meeting after the Easter recess.

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