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FactCheck: Will Northern Ireland drivers have to display GB stickers on their vehicles if driving in Ireland?

The claim surfaced in the media this week as a result of information published on the UK government’s website.

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UK DRIVERS TRAVELLING in the EU will have to put a GB sticker on their cars after Brexit, it has been claimed. 

This has caused concerns that Northern Irish drivers will have to display GB stickers if travelling in Ireland or simply just crossing the border. 

Where does this claim come from?

On the UK government website, on a page titled “Driving in the EU After Brexit”, it states: “You should display a GB sticker on the rear of your vehicle, even if you currently have a number plate which includes the GB identifier.”

The GB identifier is simply a small sticker that identifies a vehicle as coming from the UK. This is the case even though Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain. 

The advice prompted anger – and some confusion – in Northern Ireland. People pointed out that someone living in Northern Ireland would need a GB sticker for crossing the border. 

Tweet by @Paul Maskey Source: Paul Maskey/Twitter

Those who identify as Irish also rejected the suggestion they might have to display a GB sticker on their vehicles. 

The decision was widely reported in both Irish and UK media. The BBC, for example, led with the headline: “GB car sticker ‘needed for UK drivers in Ireland’ after Brexit”. 

The Evidence

International regulations on transport are notoriously complex. Issues like aviation and driving licenses have been widely researched and discussed since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 by both British and European institutions. 

The advice coming from the UK government is as follows: 

You should display a GB sticker on the rear of your vehicle, even if you currently have a number plate which includes the GB identifier.

However, another section of the UK government website – offering advice on the flags and symbols a driver can display on their vehicle as part of wider driver and transport guidelines – also currently states:

If you display the Euro symbol and Great Britain GB national identifier on your number plate, then you will not need a separate GB sticker when travelling within the European Union. 

The UK AA currently says: “GB Stickers are compulsory within the EU unless your UK registration plates display the GB Euro-symbol (Europlates) which became a legal option from 21 March 2001.

“The Euro plate is only legally recognised in the EU; it is still a requirement to display a GB sticker when travelling outside the EU.”

So that’s where countries outside the European Union come in. The modern, international need to use some kind of distinguishing sign on vehicles detailing country of registration can be traced mainly to the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, which followed and replaced the post-war 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. 

Article 37 of the Vienna convention states: “Every motor vehicle in international traffic shall display at the rear, in addition to its registration number, a distinguishing sign of the State in which it is registered. This sign may either be placed separately from the registration plate or may be incorporated into the registration plate.”

Ireland is not a signatory to that convention, but a similar rule is included in the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, which the country did sign in 1962.

And further to that, a 1998 regulation from the Council of the European Union – a body made up of government ministers – basically superseded the 1968 convention for EU member states. 

The regulation says: 

Member States requiring vehicles registered in another Member State to display a distinguishing registration sign when they are being driven on their territory shall recognise the distinguishing sign of the Member State of registration displayed on the extreme left of the registration plate in accordance with the Annex to this Regulation as being equivalent to any other distinguishing sign that they recognise for the purpose of identifying the State in which the vehicle is registered.

Put simply, this means that the requirement for separate stickers became largely unnecessary when a country’s national symbol (such as GB) was incorporated into registration plates. 

Following Brexit, it is assumed British vehicles will no longer use those EU plates, therefore introducing the need for a “distinguishing sign of the State in which it is registered”, as per those international treaties.

“If and when the UK exits the EU, the default regime of the Vienna Convention applies. If the UK were to decide to remove the incorporated sign from its plates, car drivers would have to affix separate stickers,” Ben Van Houtte, an expert on EU transport law, told TheJournal.ie. 

However, he also said: “In relation to the Vienna Convention, it does not matter whether the twelve EU stars appear on the registration plate so long as it says ‘GB’ in accordance with the layout requirements of the Convention.”

This suggests it might also depend on how EU states interpret the requirements of the convention, which still applies in theory to non-EU states that have not reached a separate agreement with the EU. 

Motoring organisation RAC currently advises UK drivers in Ireland that they will need a GB sticker on their car if it doesn’t have ‘Euro-plates’. 

Similarly, the RAC tells travellers to France: “You will need a GB sticker on your car to drive in France unless it’s equipped with EU number plates, which show the country code in a circle of stars on a blue background.”

 The AA UK’s website offers the following advice on Brexit: 

Deal or No deal – the Government’s advice is that you should display a GB sticker on the rear of your vehicle, irrespective of whether you currently have a number plate which includes the GB identifier.

If there is confusion in the area, it is typically because the area is governed by both EU regulations and international law. You theoretically do require an international identifier, but simultaneously don’t if you’re a driver from an EU member state because EU law on number plates gazumped the need for separate stickers. 

Brexit sticker Source: Gov.UK

The approach of the UK to this complexity has been to tell motorists to fix GB stickers to their cars when travelling in the EU after Brexit. 

In a questionnaire on the UK government website, UK travellers driving in the EU are warned:  

Put a GB sticker on the back of your vehicle if it’s registered in the UK, even if your number plate already shows GB with a Euro symbol. You could get a fine if you do not have a GB sticker when you need one.

How does this apply to Ireland?

Firstly, it’s important to keep in mind that this is advice from the UK government. It does not know, for certain, what approach will be taken by other countries following a no-deal Brexit. 

It is in this context that the advice should be taken, with the government trying to offer the best clarity it can to British drivers travelling in the EU after Brexit. The UK Department of Transport did not respond to questions from TheJournal.ie asking it to clarify the legal rationale for this advice.  

When it comes to Ireland, which is the only EU member state to share a land border with the UK, things will get slightly more complicated after Brexit. The AA, for instance, is advising all Northern Irish drivers to use green cards – basically a letter from their insurance company – when travelling across the border after a no-deal Brexit. 

Ireland is not a signatory of the Vienna Convention. However, the 1998 Council of Europe regulation does apply to us and theoretically all non-EU drivers will need to display a national symbol on their car. 

Does this mean that Ireland will start fining all drivers from the UK and Northern Ireland if they don’t display a GB sticker? It’s hard to say. 

The onus is on Ireland to enforce such a rule. In theory, all drivers from Northern Ireland should display a GB sticker and gardaí do possess the power to ensure they do. 

It remains unclear, however, whether the Irish state will want to enforce such a rule. 

Speaking on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio One on Tuesday, Minister for Education Joe McHugh, who is a TD for Donegal, was non-committal when asked whether the government would require or enforce GB stickers on cars for people travelling across the border from Northern Ireland. 

“The border has become so insignificant in terms of being a barrier that we can’t go back to any other means or anything physical that would prevent that movement of people,” he said during the discussion. 

shutterstock_1314796544 A GB sticker. Source: Shutterstock/ricochet64

On the specific issue of GB stickers, he emphasised that the government wants to ensure free movement of people across the border to protect peace in Northern Ireland. 

Drivers from Northern Ireland will technically have to display the sticker after Brexit. However, it remains to be seen whether there will be efforts made by Ireland to enforce this. 

On the balance of probabilities, it is likely that the Irish government will not want to force Northern Irish drivers to display a GB sticker. A Garda spokesperson told TheJournal.ie that they were “not aware of any requirement for UK drivers to display signs on their vehicle. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport may be in a better position to advise on this matter”.

The Department for Transport did not respond to TheJournal.ie when contacted about this issue. 

The situation is somewhat analogous across Europe. France, Germany, Italy or any other EU country will have to decide – together or separately – after 31 October whether or not to check for GB stickers on UK vehicles travelling on their roads. 

Insurance

While the requirement to display a GB sticker is part of law – albeit an old and little known international law – it is unlikely to affect your insurance claim if you’re involved in an accident. 

For Northern Irish drivers who spend a lot of time driving in the EU, the lack of a GB sticker should not impact your road-worthiness or your insurance status. 

The Association of British Insurers told TheJournal.ie:

The position as far as motor insurance is concerned is that, in the event of any no-deal Brexit UK, motorists driving to the EU – including motorists from Northern Ireland driving into the Republic of Ireland – will be required to have a Green Card as proof of motor insurance. This can be provided by your motor insurer.

“Not complying with traffic regulations in this context is a separate issue, that while would not invalidating your insurance could risk other penalties,” a spokesperson said. 

This suggests that a GB sticker is not going to be treated as an important document for insurance purposes. 

Verdict

As is clear from recent days, the Brexit process is incredibly uncertain and it’s impossible to predict what could happen in the weeks ahead. However, the current UK government position is that a GB sticker will be needed by drivers of UK-registered vehicles in EU countries. 

This is in the expectation that other countries will require UK drivers to display such stickers. 

However, we don’t yet know how EU countries will enforce such a requirement. Ireland has not yet said it will require drivers from Northern Ireland to display a GB sticker and this prospect has already proved controversial. 

As a result, we rate the claim that Northern Irish drivers will have to display GB stickers when driving in Ireland: 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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