The government has confirmed for the first time that there will be Brexit checks on animals and food goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK from next January.
The announcement, detailed in a 23-page document released by the government on Wednesday, comes months after Boris Johnson pledged there would be no checks on trade crossing the Irish Sea – telling businesses that if anyone asked them to fill in new paperwork, they could “throw it in the bin”.
Despite that pledge, Michael Gove said on Wednesday the checks would be necessary to ensure the entire island of Ireland maintained “disease-free status”, with border inspection posts for agrifood arrivals at Belfast port, Belfast international airport, Belfast City airport and Warrenpoint port.
There would also be “expanded infrastructure” at some of these sites, with Larne port, where checks on live animals are already carried out, designated as the principal port for livestock after Brexit.
The arrangements have been put in place as part of the deal struck between Boris Johnson and the EU in January to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.
The effort to minimise the checks as set out by Gove will provide reassurance to some business and political leaders opposed to such controls, primarily the Democratic Unionist party, but is likely to spark a fresh row over the Irish border with the EU.
One senior EU official expressed satisfaction that the government had U-turned on Johnson’s claims that there would be no additional customs controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. “It could be a great deal worse,” the source said of the British proposals. “It is a good first step when you strip away the rhetoric around it.”
According to the statement, there will be no customs fees payable on goods remaining in the region.
Neither will there be security certificates for goods going in either direction. These are the so-called exit and entry declaration forms that the former Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay revealed would be needed for goods traded in both directions.
Under a four-point plan, Gove pledged:
Gove’s pledge not to apply tariffs on goods transported to Northern Ireland from Great Britain complies with the spirit of the deal struck between Johnson and the EU. But it could set him on a collision course with Brussels, which had envisaged that customs controls would apply to all goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, with rebates on tariffs for goods that did not go on to the Republic of Ireland.
Sources say the government has come under pressure from big supermarket chains among other businesses who have argued that if they are delivering consignments to shoppers in Northern Ireland, a tariff-charge and charge-back arrangement would lead to costly and unnecessary paperwork.
Gove promised the checks would involve “the minimum possible bureaucratic consequences for business and traders, particularly those carrying out their affairs entirely within the UK customs territory”.
The government has said, however, that “some new administrative process” will apply for traders because the deal requires the UK to apply EU customs rules to goods entering Northern Ireland. #
The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, welcomed the plan, revealing discussions on agrifood had been “difficult and sensitive”. But she warned the UK deal must ensure it “does not saddle individual Northern Ireland businesses with further costly administrative burdens”.
Claire Hanna, the Social Democratic and Labour party MP for Belfast South, said Gove had “finally confirmed there will be a large increase in the amount of red tape” for businesses and warned that “castles in the air” such as trade deals with the US would lead to increased checks in the Irish Sea.
Sinn Féin said the checks showed the “forked tongue” approach of the UK government.
Discussing the papers in the Commons, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, said: “We welcome the statement today but it does expose the broken promises made by the prime minister … Even now, many fear that the government are not willing to admit the full extent of those. We have seven months to get this right and we must.”
Business leaders also gave the plan a cautious welcome. Seamus Leheny, the policy manager at the Freight Transport Association in Northern Ireland, said it was a “positive step that the UK confirms there will be some controls”, but that the language was so “loose” in areas that it was effectively putting the ball back in the EU’s court.
Aodhán Connolly, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said it was a good start but questions remained. “The UK government has acknowledged the need to deliver upon their obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol. This acceptance of the hurdles that need to be overcome is a good starting point, but there are still many questions that are left unanswered.”
An EU spokesman said the commission welcomed the proposal and would study it in detail.
“We have said we can provide certain flexibilities in terms of customs checks, but they have to fit with the union’s customs code, because the Irish border is the EU border, so the union customs code applies,” a second EU official said.