Police in Belfast, 2013. Photo: Joshua Hayes via a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence
January 22nd, 2019
We still have little idea what the customs arrangements on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be after 29 March. A border control expert explains why the border is so crucial and sets out the scale of the task customs and other regulatory bodies on both sides of the border will face.
If the United Kingdom leaves the EU as scheduled, the EU will treat it as a “third country” – with inevitable consequences for border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The extent of these controls will be determined by the terms of the UK’s withdrawal. While the primary impact will be felt in the area of customs controls, a range of other regulatory controls, including agriculture, marine, health, environmental and plant health may come into play.
In the worst case scenario of a no-deal Brexit, the customs relationship between UK and Ireland could, in theory, be compared with that which exists between eastern EU states and their non-EU neighbours – for example, Hungary and Ukraine, or Bulgaria and Serbia.
The stated position of both British and Irish politicians, as well EU officials, is that there is no desire to see a return to the Irish land border controls which operated before both countries became members of the Single Market in 1993. It has been suggested that an “invisible” border without a physical infrastructure, but relying on technology such as Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), could operate.
Comparisons have been drawn with the existing Norway/Sweden relationship, which allows for certain simplified procedures for movement of people and trade between these states. However, a critical factor in the free movement of people in this region is that both countries are members of the Schengen area. Article 41of the Schengen Convention provides for cross-border pursuit by police forces. Neither the UK nor Ireland is a Schengen member. In terms of trade movements, Norway is a member of European Economic Area and European Free Trade Association and therefore enjoys certain Single Market trading conditions. Despite this both Norway and Sweden operate controls – including some cargo inspection – along their shared border, with a requirement that trade movements pass through one of the several border customs stations.
Technologies such as ANPR and CCTV are used at these border crossings, but as with a wide range of technologies available to customs, they are seen by practitioners as a means to enhance border controls rather than to replace them.
The presence of any fiscal or economic border provides opportunities for smuggling and other forms of criminal activity. The political situation in NI adds an extra dimension to a land border scenario. Serious organised crime groups continue to smuggle and deal in tobacco, alcohol and prescription medicines. Effective border controls and law enforcement measures will be required to prevent escalation of these activities. The PSNI has outlined plans to recruit and deploy an extra 300 officers to police the border, but the Irish government has said that it has no similar contingency plans to increase Garda numbers in the border area.