How will trade work between North and South post-Brexit?

How will trade work between North and South post-Brexit?

And so the softening up process has begun - there will be checks on goods crossing the border, the only matter to clarify is where exactly, writes Juno McEnroe

Fine Gael ministers have for the first time confirmed in the event of a hard border checks, tariffs or agri-food inspections will be needed somewhere to protect the EU's trading frontier. But they continue to insist these checks won't take place on the border.

But there is now a sense the Government is preparing the ground for some type of border controls down the line. Suggestions from ministers there may be anything less is baffling experts.

A cursory examination of goods going across both sides of the border reveals the reality behind monitoring an area that effectively would be the EU's backdoor if Britain and the North crash out.

The vast quantity and value of agri-food and farm products exported to the North and imported from there suggests a quick box-ticking exercise, trusted trade pact or some electronic checks will not work.

Central Statistics Office figures obtained by the Irish Examiner show that in 2018, the North exported some almost €3.7 bn in goods - €1.4 bn to the south.

This included €264m or 756,000 tonnes in dairy goods and eggs; 340,000 tonnes or €118m in feeding material for animals and 15,000 tonnes or €36m in meat and meat preparations.

Ireland exported over 48,000 tonnes or €79m of live animals to the North; almost €200m worth of meat preparations and a further €110m in dairy products and eggs.

Senior government figures in the last two days have tried to play down the strictness of checks involved, if Ireland must accede to EU demands to protect the Single Market and the bloc's frontiers with any disorderly Brexit.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney insisted there would be no checks on or near the border, but “some action” would need to be taken. Talks with Brussels centred on tariffs, customs checks and SPS inspections - which are carried out on live animals.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney
Tánaiste Simon Coveney

EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan played down concerns about checkpoints on RTÉ yesterday. “Substantial amount” of checks were done at the point of origin or at Dublin Port and a very small amount in the North.

So it is a political issue more than an issue of substance on the ground for practical steps to be taken to ensure the protection of the single market.

He said there were plans at EU level for a "worst case" scenario for Brexit.

“We will protect the consumer, we will protect the movement of animals. And we already have an all-island basis for doing this and powers devolved to Northern Ireland from London.”

“The Tanaiste is correct we will have to take some action somewhere, but we are not contemplating a hard border or new border infrastructure.”

Phil Hogan
Phil Hogan

But the shift in language from government buildings and new admission that checks of some kind will be needed is being viewed with scepticism.

For months now, ministers insisted that with a Brexit deal or no-deal, there would still be seamless or frictionless trade.

Gavin Barrett, professor of law at UCD's school of law, told RTÉ that the Government's latest Brexit comments were the equivalent of a "hurricane warning", telling the public to prepare for one at 11pm on the night of October 31.

“If we want to remain members of the single market, then we have to protect the frontier of the single market and that becomes the ports and airport into Ireland and also the border with Northern Ireland. So that involves some kind of checks. I've no doubt the government will try and minimise them,” said the UCD professor.

Even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dismissed any technology-led spot checks when quizzed in Davos earlier this year.

I have yet to have anyone demonstrate to me a technology that can look into a truck and tell me whether there's hormones in the beef or not

Prof Barrett agrees. And moreover, he is baffled and sceptical that anything but border checks will suffice:

"You can't look inside a truck with computers at the end of the day. So how you would do that without doing that at a border or within a border zone baffles me. The government haven't admitted it yet, but I think sooner or later they will. I think there is a softening of the ground in that regard.”

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