Last reviewed 14 December 2020
While attention in recent weeks has tended to focus on what will happen at the Channel ports when the UK leaves the single market on 31 December 2020, there is another border between the two. Recently, hauliers and businesses working in or trading with Northern Ireland have been being alerted to the considerable changes that they too can expect at the end of the transition period. The explanation for the forthcoming changes can be found in the Northern Ireland Protocol which was formulated as part of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement signed by the UK Government and the European Union.
Northern Ireland Protocol
The Protocol aims to avoid the introduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland even if the UK and the EU fail to reach agreement during the ongoing trade negotiations. Northern Ireland remains part of the UK’s customs territory so that, if the UK signs a free trade agreement with another country, Northern Irish businesses can benefit from that FTA. However, in order to ensure that no customs checks or controls are required between Northern Ireland and the Republic, they will need to apply for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
It has been agreed that Northern Ireland will have to stay in line with some EU Single Market rules for goods. As the rest of Britain could diverge, there will accordingly need to be some checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and these could be significant in the case of agri-food goods.
Implementing the Protocol
In May, the Cabinet Office published a paper setting out the Government’s approach to how it expected the Protocol to work in practice. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/886289/2020-05-20_Command_Paper__UK_s_Approach_to_the_Northern_Ireland_Protocol-gov.uk.pdf, this explains that no tariffs will be paid on goods that move and remain within the UK customs territory. It also emphasises that any processes involving goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be kept to an absolute minimum and reminds businesses that the Protocol is due to remain in place until at least 2024 when a vote will be held in Northern Ireland’s elected institutions on its continuance. If the vote is in favour, it will still need to be repeated after a further four-year period to confirm public support.
The Cabinet Office has since returned to the subject and produced a series of guides designed to help businesses to engage in the new processes required under the Protocol. These can all be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/moving-goods-under-the-northern-ireland-protocol.
They come with a warning that, until negotiations with the EU conclude, there will be some areas “without complete certainty” but the Government has promised that full guidance will be available by the end of the transition period. The current documents make clear where further guidance will be provided in due course.
…from Northern Ireland to Great Britain
The UK Government is guaranteeing unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses (including businesses headquartered in Great Britain with operations in Northern Ireland) to the rest of the UK internal market from 1 January 2021. Underlining this commitment, it said that there will be:
no import customs declarations as goods enter the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland
no entry summary (‘safety and security’) declaration as goods enter the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland
no tariffs applied to Northern Ireland goods entering the rest of the UK in any circumstances
no customs checks
no new regulatory checks
no additional approvals required for placing goods on the market in the rest of the UK.
Businesses in Ireland will however need to follow the normal process for importing goods into the United Kingdom, including submitting customs declarations and paying any tariff duties that are due.
…from Great Britain to Northern Ireland
No new customs infrastructure will be required to be built in Northern Ireland (or in ports in Great Britain facing Northern Ireland) and processes will be fully digital. The UK Government position is that there should be no tariffs payable on internal UK trade and, in any event, full use will be made of waivers and reimbursements to minimise the impact on business in any scenario.
The Protocol requires a UK-EU Joint Committee decision on the application of tariffs on ‘at risk’ goods moving into Northern Ireland. Full details will be provided subsequent to that yet-to-be-made decision but, the guide highlights, it is important to note that the ultimate destination of goods and whether, for example, traders will be selling them in Northern Ireland or moving them on to Ireland/the EU, will become relevant in the future.
Businesses can use Customs Special Procedures to suspend, reduce or claim relief on the payment of customs duties and VAT under specified conditions. Special procedures include customs warehousing, inward processing, outward processing, temporary admission and authorised end use. This system of facilitations will also need to take account of the regime that will apply for the application of tariffs to ‘at risk’ goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
It should be noted that the UK has successfully negotiated membership of the Common Transit Convention after the end of the transition period. Common Transit allows the movement of goods under duty suspension until they reach their final destination. Traders will only have to make customs declarations and pay import duties on arrival at their final destination although safety and security requirements will still need to be met.
… from Northern Ireland to the European Union
There will be no substantive change for the movement of goods covered by the Protocol between Northern Ireland and EU Member States, including Ireland, although the UK Government has said that it will monitor the application of these provisions closely, to ensure that no EU Member State breaches its obligations or discriminates against Northern Ireland goods in any way.
Northern Ireland businesses will be able to trade freely within the EU Single Market, as well as enjoying unfettered access to the whole of the UK market. Furthermore any approvals or certifications secured in order to place goods on the market in the EU will be recognised when seeking to place the same goods on the market in the United Kingdom - avoiding the need for additional approvals to access the latter market.
Intrastat will continue to operate for goods moving to and from NI from the EU. Businesses currently providing Intrastat declarations for these movements will continue to be required to do so in 2021.
…from Northern Ireland to the rest of the world
The overall process for trading between Northern Ireland and non-EU countries will continue broadly as it does today. As mentioned above, Northern Ireland will also benefit from any FTAs the UK concludes with countries outside the Union. Businesses in Northern Ireland will form part of the UK’s domestic industry for the purposes of trade remedy investigations, invoked to protect domestic industries against injury caused by unfair trading practices such as dumping or subsidies.
Under the Protocol, UK trade remedies will apply to all goods from the rest of the world entering Northern Ireland other than those “at genuine and substantial risk” of entering the EU. Further guidance will be provided on the specific operation of this regime in the light of the Joint Committee decision mentioned above.
Implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol
With the EU-UK trade negotiations appearing to be stalled and with considerable disquiet in Brussels when the Government introduced its Internal Market Bill, which seemed set to reinterpret the special Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland in a way that would break international law, the two sides were again divided over the future of Northern Ireland. However, following a meeting in December between the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, and the EU Commission Vice President, Maroš Šefčovič, the dispute has been settled.
The Government has published a Command Paper setting out details of an agreement in principle on the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol reached by Mr Gove and Mr Šefčovič. This can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-northern-ireland-protocol together with various draft Decision of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee on matters including the determination of goods not at risk and export declarations. The paper outlines how the agreement meets the Government’s three key commitments to the people of Northern Ireland as the Protocol takes effect.
Unfettered access guaranteed for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the UK market — with no export declarations required as goods move from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
Northern Ireland’s place in the UK customs territory secured — with a new UK Trader Scheme to ensure there are no new tariffs for businesses and consumers on internal UK trade, and the means to maintain the UK’s VAT area.
Smooth flow of trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland maintained — with critical flexibilities to maintain the flow of food supplies and medicines, and to avoid the need for any new physical customs infrastructure.
The deal, Mr Gove said, means the whole of the United Kingdom will be able to make the most of the freedoms that come with the end of the Brexit transition period, including giving the Northern Ireland Executive the scope it needs to support its agricultural and fisheries producers outside the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
It also provides a solution to the inadvertent risk of “reach back” of the Protocol’s state aid provisions to companies in Great Britain, requiring a “genuine and direct link” to commercial operations taking place in Northern Ireland. “This agreement with the EU provides stability and security for the people of Northern Ireland,” Mr Gove concluded. “We have guaranteed unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the whole of the UK market, protected Northern Ireland’s place in the UK customs territory and ensured the smooth flow of trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.”
Trader Support Service
Complementing the guidance published by the Cabinet Office, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has invited businesses to register an interest in the new Trader Support Service (registration will also keep them up to date with any changes due to the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol). Announcing the £355 million initiative, the Minister responsible for concluding Brexit, Michael Gove, said that it was aimed at addressing concerns from Northern Ireland businesses that red tape could disrupt the flow of goods from Great Britain.
Free to use, the Service will provide end-to-end support to help:
businesses who move goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or bring goods into Northern Ireland from outside the UK
those who act on behalf of someone to move goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or bring goods into Northern Ireland from outside the UK
businesses based in Northern Ireland who receive goods from outside of Northern Ireland
those who send parcels between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or bring parcels into Northern Ireland from outside the UK, using Royal Mail or an express operator.
Businesses interested in this Service, which they can also use to get declarations completed on their behalf, are asked to complete a one-page form available at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/trader-support-service. This may mean upgrading to a newer browser (if, for example, a business is still using Internet Explorer 8) but this is explained in a guide to the service which can be found at
Welcoming the new Service, which became operational in September 2020, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said: “This is a unique service that will ensure that businesses of all sizes can have import processes dealt with on their behalf, at no cost.”
Movement Assistance Scheme
At the same time as producing its Command Paper, the Government launched the Movement Assistance Scheme (MAS) to complement the Trader Support Service. The MAS will provide assistance for traders moving food or agricultural products for which specific SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) controls apply — meaning the Government will cover, for example, reasonable costs for obtaining Export Health Certificates. Businesses can be assured that despite the new requirements of the Protocol, businesses will be supported to deal with new direct costs, Mr Gove emphasised.
Goods Vehicle Movement Service
On 11 December, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) posted a notice confirming the locations that will be using the Goods Vehicle Movement Service from 1 January 2021. Details of how to register with GVMS, which is a border control information technology system for coordinating the movement of vehicles, are available at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/register-for-the-goods-vehicle-movement-service and this became possible on 8 December. The HMRC confirms that Belfast, Larne and Warrenpoint will all be able to support pre-lodged Customs Controls as well as Offices of Transit.