From one border to another border

It is one of those cases where the devil is in the details. When the Brexit referendum machine got into full swing, not one Little Englander gave a thought or a damn about the border between Ireland the Republic and the 6 counties on the north-eastern tip of the island. That border ceased to exist with the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement, officially known as the Belfast Agreement, of 1998. You can read up on the history and details elsewhere; the most important thing is that the militarised border on the island is dismantled and the Troubles are over, and some form of normality has entered.

For almost 20 years now, the GFA works. Well, the executive in Stormont collapsed a few times, but nobody is perfect. Then came the Brexit referendum in 2016, and one year later, the Northern Ireland situation and the GFA had moved from being almost forgotten to dominating almost everything. What became very clear was that the GFA needs to stand, or the Troubles will return. The ideas to solve this were far and wide, but the most bonkers suggestion was for Ireland to leave the EU and enter a free trade and customs union with the UK instead. No, seriously. Then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar didn’t grace it with a response, except to say:

“We’re not designing a border for Brexiteers. They need to say what and how they want it.”

And the sorry saga unfolded.

Getting Brexit done in the Irish Sea

Theresa May tried to deal with it – first by insisting on customs checks between N’Ireland and the Republic. That position paper from August 2017 envisaged “flexible and imaginative solutions,” i.e. spot checks and so-called smart technology. To be honest, nobody knows what “smart tech” was supposed to be in this context; all we do know is that it did not then and does not now exist. When Ireland wanted a guarantee in writing that there would be no hard border again, May came up in April 2018 with the Irish Backstop: The UK would stay in full alignment with the EU Customs Union and Single Market but only if there was no deal to be had at the end of the transition period. It was a good incentive to get the job done, yet it would protect the GFA in a worst case scenario. But it wasn’t the hardest of Brexit the lunatics were aiming for, so in the following 12 months, May got shot down in Parliament three times for that.

In June 2019, Boris Johnson succeeded her as Prime Minister, rubbished May’s Withdrawal Agreement & Backstop and set out to “get Brexit done.” In October that year, Johnson concluded the Northern Ireland Protocol as part of “his” WA with the EU. Johnson’s NIP in effect is like May’s Backstop, but – wait for it – more or less permanent. Northern Ireland stays in the EU Single Market & Customs Union, but also remains part of the UK Customs territory. That means, goods coming from the UK going to N’Ireland must comply with EU rules and pay any potential tariffs. This arrangement can be changed every 4 years, but only if Stormont agrees. Checks on goods will have to be carried out, so that no-one can use Ulster as a backdoor into Ireland & the EU. The checks will be done in the Northern Irish ports by EU agents, and they do include everything that gets transported into N’Ireland, regardless of where it originated. And this effectively creates the border not on the island, but in the Irish Sea.

Johnson has a propensity for, shall we say, fudging the facts and toying with the truth. The man waffles a lot without saying anything, but one of his utterances is preserved for posterity. When pressed by a member of the Stormont assembly about the NIP and the consequences for trade almost a year after the Protocol was done, Johnson steadfastly declared:

“There will be no border down the Irish Sea – over my dead body.”

Some people did believe him.

“Complete Car Crash”

Enter the reality of the Northern Ireland Protocol. It’s been in place now for two months, and since none of the “shitgibbons” in Westminster bothered to read it properly, the problems are stacking up.

Actually, that assessment is not true; someone did bother. The Department for Exiting the EU did an analysis of the WA and NIP in mid-October 2019, basically straight after it was done. The analysis describes literally everything that is happening now. Still, nobody bothered to read that text, either, “because sovereignty” and who cares?

Goods coming out of N’Ireland need to have first and foremost Exit and Entry Summary Declarations. These are forms with 31 boxes each to be filled in. Goods coming into N’Ireland also need a Safety & Security Certificate with 45 data-fields. Half of which are codes which can be found in a 557-page document that forms the basis of the Certificate. And that’s just the haulage.

Then come the actual goods inside the lorry – they need customs declarations, based on the their value. Food stuff, i.e. anything containing animal products, additionally needs an Export Health Certificate. The responsible Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has over 1,900 certs to choose from, but at the moment, there is no EHC for chilled meat, only for frozen meat. Which means, anything processed like sausage, ready-meals, Sunday roast and fresh chicken cannot cross the Irish Sea. After pictures of empty shelves in supermarkets and one of them having to stock produce from a local rival chain, retailers like supermarket chains and Amazon got a grace period, so for now not every single item they import needs an EHC. That grace period ends on 1 April – then literally everything in that consignment needs the paperwork, or it goes nowhere. Smaller suppliers and catering firms, e.g. for hospitals and schools, did not get that period, by the way.

Then there come the Rules of Origin. If a product is manufactured to at least 50% in the UK, it passes, otherwise the customer pays customs duty. For which you need a list of every single component and part with their origin and value. Normally not so difficult, but just imagine you are a car dealer or sell farm machinery.

We also have what’s called groupage. That’s when a haulier picks up from several customers on the way to the Irish Sea. Each single consignment inside that lorry needs its own customs declaration and, in case of foods, EHCs. But, in case of foods, the consignment needs to be sealed after inspection, or everything needs to be re-checked and re-certified every time someone opens the back door.

And don’t forget the IT. The UK system is called “Goods Vehicle Movement Service.” A quick survey in September last year revealed that half the hauliers had never heard of it, and official guidance was published in plenty of time on 8 December last year. However, the most comprehensive and easier to follow explanation comes from a trade consultancy headquartered in France. Bloody furrinners. /s Every tour needs to be registered on that system to allow for a customs declaration; if a lorry doesn’t have GVMS clearance for that particular trip, it cannot board a ferry. Again, in case of food stuff, there is also the EU’s Trade Control and Expert System, which monitors the movement of food products and live animals into the EU. If you transport food stuff and don’t have the trip registered with them, you are definitely not getting off the ferry in N’Ireland.

To make it more interesting, let’s look at “goods at risk.” These are things transported to N’Ireland being “at risk” to be moved undercover into the Republic frustrating EU customs & excise duties. One example is grain for animal feed. N’Ireland farmers need this, but due to quota implications, they are now hit with a tariff for importing it. First estimates say about £2m in the first year. The promised rebate system is nowhere to be seen, of course.

Pets are another thing covered by the NIP. For now, there is also a grace period, ending 1 July. After that, anyone travelling with non-food animals needs the paperwork. Going from N’Ireland to the UK, you need a pet passport for your pooch. Going the other way, you need a health certificate that confirms the animal is chipped and vaccinated against rabies. You need a new cert for every trip, and that includes guide dogs, too.

The consequences are real. N’Irish hauliers and freight companies lost £40m in the first three weeks of the year alone. As one haulier put it:

“Politicians in Westminster do not have a clue. […] We had the prime minister saying things are all sweet and dandy. Well he hasn’t got a scooby doo of what’s going on. Come up here, Boris Johnson, and see for yourself because it is a complete car crash.”

And Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis is either deaf or blind or both, because for him, empty shelves and loss of income are to do with Covid:

“That’s actually something we’ve seen across other parts of the UK as well, nothing to do with leaving the EU, nothing to do with the Northern Irish protocol but actually to do with some of the challenges we saw with Covid at the Port of Dover just before Christmas and the impact that had on supply lines coming through.”

It obviously didn’t take them long to blame the consequences of their stupidity of four years ago on the current pandemic.

But the most ridiculous consequence of Johnson’s NIP is this: The British military now has to fill in customs declarations, a fortnight in advance, and has to notify NATO if they want to move across the Irish Sea. For real. Thanks to the GFA, the army no longer plays a role in N’Irish politics, but they do maintain two bases and provide support to the PSNI under “Operation Helvetic.” Never in a million years did any of the Little Englanders consider this a result of Brexit, yet here we are: Military movement of hardware inside the UK borders needs to be declared to the EU and coordinated by NATO. You cannot make it up.

Please, sir, I want some more

And how are our fearless leaders solving the issues created by their mindless bluster and “because sovereignty”? By ignoring them, of course. The words “teething problems” have been thrown around so often, everyone’s teeth are starting to hurt, and the few “bumps in the road” turn out to be vertical. Another favourite coping mechanism is of course to delay the few implementations that were already agreed, and to wait & see with how little or how much we can get away with. So-called Border Control Posts in N’Irish ports have not been set up properly; in the first few days it was usually a marquee, a Portaloo, and a folding table. Checks on goods and IDs are not always carried out by UK agents because there are not enough of them. The often-touted Trusted Trader Scheme is nowhere to be seen – traders getting certified once so they can avoid repeated checks at the border sounds like a good idea, but nobody is doing anything with it. The EU still doesn’t have access to the UK IT system, necessary to make use of the Trusted Trader and the EHCs. The list goes on.

And there’s the favourite Conservative tactic of “kicking the can down the road.” Michael Gove, Cabinet Office Minister, or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, as he likes to be called, now went to the EU and asked for a 2-year extension to the various grace periods for N’Ireland, preferably even suspending the entire Protocol for that length. The same politician, who in cahoots with Johnson declared last year that we don’t need an extension to the UK-wide transition period because we are ready, never mind the Covid mess we’re in, now wants an extension to what is basically a transition period. Gove of course didn’t ask for it cap (or bowl) in hand, like the famous Dickens character; that would have been worth watching. It was done rather with the usual Conservative attitude of ‘it’s not us, honest’ – basically in the same breath he turns around and tells UK businesses that the EU is to blame for the current mess because it’s the EU that incomprehensibly insists that ‘rules are rules.’ Gove was quickly shut down by his counterpart in the Joint Committee, Maros Sefcovic, VP of the European Commission: As long as the UK isn’t fulfilling its part of the Protocol, there’s no point in an extension because we won’t know what’s working and what isn’t and what needs extending. In short: You wanted it, now deal with it.

The right-wing lunatics are foaming at the mouth and call for invoking Art 16 of the NIP. “Because sovereignty” and anyway, it would be a nice prelude to chuck the entire WA and piss off Brussels. If it kills the GFA in the process, so be it. But as per usual, they didn’t read the whole text. Art 16 states:

“If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures.”

However, invoking it doesn’t change anything else and any “measure” is subject to consultation every 3 months. After that, the same issue and problems will just start again. But shouting and posturing makes for good TV-ready righteous indignation, and that is something these people excel at.

A few of us are still waiting for Johnson to fulfil his promise of dropping dead.