Leak reveals Northern Ireland civil service plan for Irish Sea border controls

By on 09/05/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Bulk-carrier The Mimosa Dream unloads at Belfast's Stormont Wharf (Image courtesy: Ross).

Senior civil servants in Northern Ireland have drawn up a plan to impose border checks in the Irish Sea on only those goods moving to or from the Republic of Ireland, in a bid to find a solution acceptable to both the EU and to Northern Ireland’s unionists – whose support is crucial to Theresa May’s UK government.

The plan is laid out in a draft discussion document on ways of managing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland within the constraints set by the UK and the European Union. The two sides agreed in December that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic and that a common customs and regulatory area will be adopted across the island of Ireland, if a solution to the border issue cannot be found.

However, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has strongly opposed any arrangement that creates “a border in the Irish Sea”, which its leader Arlene Foster has rejected as “catastrophic” for the province’s economy. The DUP is in a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with Theresa May’s minority Conservative government, which needs its support to pass UK legislation.

Red alert

The document, which was leaked to The Guardian and The BBC last week, envisages a system of green and red channels at the province’s ports. “Concern that a model without a land border would imply ‘a border in the Irish Sea’ could be addressed by providing a ‘green channel’ for goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, so that there need be no check or constraint on movement” for people and goods travelling within the UK, it states.

However, goods moving via Northern Ireland from the Irish republic to Great Britain would be subject to checks in a ‘red channel’ at the port or airport of departure.

Under the blueprint, the red channel would also be used for imports into Northern Ireland from Great Britain and the rest of the world that may not meet EU single market standards, with “draconian penalties for non-compliance”, The Guardian reported.

Such draconian penalties would presumably be required because the system would be largely trust-based: any checks on vehicles using the green channel would raise concerns amongst unionists fiercely opposed to anything resembling a border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, creating obvious potential for smuggling between the UK and Ireland as soon as regulations or trade tariffs diverge.

“The degree to which these [red channel check] protections are needed would depend on the degree of regulatory divergence that would apply sector by sector, and clearly that may evolve over time from the status quo of regulatory uniformity,” the document states.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster has rejected the arrangements as “catastrophic” for the province’s economy (Image courtesy: Constituency Office of Arlene Foster, MLA).

Existing infrastructure

In the document, officials argue that “ports and airports provide helpful opportunities for surveillance that assist with risk management even when they do not have any of the visible paraphernalia of a border”.

“The very simple and important practical point is that loading on to a ship or aeroplane always involves both a pause in movement and some checks of ‘entitlement to board’ – obviously neither of these apply at the land border,” it states. “Pragmatic extension of a present reality, with the lightest possible touch required to manage risk, seems infinitely preferable to ‘a return to the border of the past’.

The report’s authors note that keeping the Irish border open would allow goods that are not compliant with EU or UK trade policy to move freely around the island’s two jurisdictions, but argue that similar risks are tolerated in other contexts – such as between Switzerland and its EU neighbours. “The commitment to support the all-island economy suggests that some degree of risk can be accepted,” the paper states.


A government spokesperson declined to comment on the paper on the grounds that it has not been published, adding that, as it came from the Northern Ireland Executive, it was “not a UK government policy document”.

“Our policy is clear – we are committed to ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and to ensuring the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK’s internal market,” she said. “We have set out our preferred customs models to enable trade to remain as frictionless as possible.”

The paper was apparently presented to DUP leaders last year, who reiterated their opposition to any form of border in the Irish Sea. But the leak did not prompt an immediate condemnation of the plan by unionist leaders, suggesting that they might consider it.

The UK government’s two main proposals for avoiding a hard border – maximum facilitation, which relies on technology and small business exemptions; and a customs partnership, in which the UK would collect import tariffs for the EU – have both been rejected by Brussels.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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