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FactCheck: Will there be checks between the North and the UK after Brexit?

Boris Johnson made the claim in the House of Commons.

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BORIS JOHNSON HAS said that there will be no checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK under his Brexit deal. 

The issue has been a major sticking point for the DUP and other unionists, who have objected to the prospect of a border in the Irish Sea and stressed their fears that the deal negotiated with the EU could lead to the break up of the UK. 

The claim

Earlier this week, Johnson told the House of Commons: “The whole of the UK will be allowed to come out of European Union customs union so we can do free trade deals together. There will be no checks between Northern Ireland and GB and there will be no tariffs between Northern Ireland and GB because we have protected the customs union.”

Johnson was defending his deal against questions by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. 

The prime minister has been clear that his deal would not create additional checks between Northern Ireland and Britain. 

Evidence

When it comes to questions over checks on goods, there are important distinctions to make between the flow of trade from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK and from the UK to Northern Ireland. 

Under the deal negotiated between Johnson and the EU, regulations will differ depending on where the goods originate from – mostly because the aim of the new arrangements are to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Because of this, a lot of discussion has looked at trade flows from Britain to Northern Ireland – the EU has concerns that a good arriving in Belfast from London could very easily end up in the single market. 

Trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is not insignificant. According to an impact report on Boris Johnson’s deal, released by the UK government, sales and purchases between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK were valued at £18.1 billion in 2017. 

A survey of 54,247 businesses in Northern Ireland found that 19% bought goods from Britain in 2016, while 6% sold goods to Britain. 

It found that 17.6 million tonnes of freight were transported between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in 2018 by sea. 

The same impact document states that “no tariffs will be paid on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland unless they are deemed to be at risk of entering the EU”.

It also states that there will be “no requirement for additional regulatory checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain”. 

It states that the UK will ensure “unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to other parts of the United Kingdom’s internal market”. 

This commitment has been repeated by the UK officials since the deal was published. 

However, for goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland, things are less clear

The Northern Ireland protocol, contained in the deal negotiated with the EU, states that “Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom”.

However, the region will remain aligned with the EU’s single market to avoid a hard border. UK authorities will apply British tariffs to products which enter Northern Ireland, as long as they’re not destined for onward transportation across the border. 

If goods were to enter the single market by travelling across the border into Ireland, EU tariffs will then be applied. 

Before the end of the Brexit transition (or implementation) period, a joint committee established under the deal will establish the conditions around the processing of goods.

Crucially, it will have to decide the criteria for assessing whether a good brought into Northern Ireland from outside the EU is at risk of crossing the border. 

This suggests that some checks will be required on goods moving from Britain into Northern Ireland – otherwise it is hard to imagine how the UK government could meet the obligations agreed with the EU. 

The impact assessment document seems to confirm this. 

Agri-food goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland would need to be notified to the relevant authorities before entering Northern Ireland and would be subject to checks including identity, documentary and physical checks by UK authorities as required by the relevant EU rules.

“These processes would introduce additional costs, both from one-off familiarisation and ongoing compliance, to businesses compared to current arrangements,” it states. 

The movement of agricultural products and live animals from Britain to Northern Ireland are not document-free currently. However, the deal would require “additional checks” in some areas, the impact document states. 

When it comes to manufactured goods, the document also states that “businesses in Great Britain placing goods on the market in Northern Ireland will need to ensure they are complying with the relevant EU rules and could be subject to risk-based checks at the boundary of the regulatory zone”. 

Under EU law, all member states must conduct “effective surveillance” of their markets. This is to ensure all products meet the necessary EU standards and comply with EU law.

In the impact document, the government states that UK authorities will “conduct risk-based checks on an ‘adequate scale’, on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain”. This appears to mean that not all manufactured goods will be checked but instead focus will be placed on any shipments seemed to have the highest risk of not complying. 

Importantly, a lack of tariffs does not mean a lack of checks. For goods not deemed at risk moving from Britain to Northern, no tariffs will be paid. But as at least one trade expert has written, “this does not mean there will be no checks or controls at the border as the EU will want to be assured that the correct declarations are being made”.

UK government ministers

Useful information on checks was provided this week from Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith. 

On 21 October, Barclay told the House of Lords European Union committee that firms in Northern Ireland would need to fill out export declaration forms if they were sending goods to Britain. 

He had initially denied this. 

In the House of Commons, Barclay also said that to ensure that the correct tariffs are applied, some “information” will be needed to goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland. 

When questioned by MPs about Johnson’s claim that that there would be no checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, Barclay said that he was “distinguishing between the paperwork required, which will be done digitally and is a single form, rather than actually introducing physical checks. In the coming months work with UK and EU on how to eliminate limited administrative processes there are”. 

Smith said, when asked about goods moving from Northern Ireland to the UK,  that “there will be some information required but it’s a minimal amount”. 

However, Smith did not reveal any details on what this information might be or what procedures might be introduced. 

“I am not able to go into every detail of the form or not a form or level of information required,” he said. 

Smith and Barclay both confirmed that some “information” – which would need to be checked by officials – will be required for goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. 

Uncertainty

The real level of such checks is hard to know, simply because these details will have to be ironed out between the EU and the UK in the months to come once – or if – the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified. 

The government is promising that any customs regulations will be minimal, simple and business-friendly. The reality may or may not be difference depending on the arrangements worked out between the UK and the EU in the years to come. 

However, we don’t fully know what Johnson means by checks. As the Brexit debate has unfolded, ‘checks’ have often been treated as meaning physical or staffed checks at a border. 

Verdict

Boris Johnson cannot categorically rule out checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Two of his senior ministers have said publicly that some kind of check or additional information will be required – however minimal – on trade between the two regions. 

Such a commitment on checks on east-west would also be needed to satisfy EU law and protect the integrity of the single market.

Barclay also confirmed that firms in Northern Ireland will need to fill out export declaration forms when exporting to Britain. 

It seems clear that there will be some kind of extra scrutiny between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK under Boris Johnson’s deal. 

However, we can’t know for sure what the UK government, within the restrictions and parameters of an agreement with the EU, could introduce on different types of goods moving between Northern Ireland and Britain. 

While we do know that some additional documentation will likely be required, the actual form and extent of checks remains to be worked out between the UK and the EU. 

As a result, we rate the claim that there will be no checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as: UNPROVEN

As per our verdict guide, this means: The evidence available is insufficient to support or refute the claim, but it is logically possible.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

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