Thursday 23 November 2017

Free movement across the island post Brexit is achievable in principle, Revenue official

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Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Free movement of goods and people across the island post Brexit is achievable in principle, Revenue’s top Brexit official has said.

Customs operations can be automated for commercial vehicles, private cars and vehicles can flow freely and there’ll be no need for permanent check points, said Tony Buckley, assistant secretary at Revenue.

But the stakes for Ireland are very high, and Ireland could face losing access to EU and international markets and potential fines if it fails to operate what will be an external EU frontier post Brexit adequately, he also said.

Mr Buckley suggested the vast bulk of checks on commercial vehicles would be done electronically and would be automated,  saying currently just 2pc involve physical checks.

“The main image that comes to people’s minds when it comes to a border is cars being stopped and searched,” Mr Buckley told a British Irish Chamber of Commerce conference.

“That’s not going to happen. There’s no reason for it. We have some 300 border crossings. We haven’t the faintest intention of closing any of those or interfering with them. So normal private traffic, people going back and forth, will continue.”

Mr Buckley said around 1 million HGVs cross the border every year each way, as well as 1.3 million white vans and over 12 million cars.

He said post Brexit, if the UK leaves the customs union, controls would have to be on heavy goods vehicles and smaller commercial vans, but that the bulk of that would be automated. 

This could be achieved through advanced declaration, electronic monitoring, combined with a certain amount of traffic monitoring, he said.

 “Private individuals going north or south is really of very little concern to us and we have no intention of interfering with that traffic,” he said.

Trade facilitation posts would be required close to the border, but what would happen at these posts is not clear until the negotiations play out, he said. He suggested, however, that there was little desire to have physical vehicle checks at these posts.

Mr Buckley told the conference at the RDS that physical checks are carried out on no more than 2pc of goods comings across Ireland’s borders.

A further 6pc are documentary checks. He also said that 85pc of exports and imports are covered by what are termed as authorised economic operators, which include organisations like DHL and FedEx.

In those cases, checks are carried out in the facilities owned by those operators by customs officials.

“They have authorised premises and that’s where physical checks are carried out,” he said. 

“The physical difficulty of unpacking a refrigerated 40ft container at the border is just something we don’t want to contemplate, nobody wants to contemplate, so let’s not do it.”

Asked about the example of the Norway and Sweden border, he said the process there can delay a truck for 15 or 20 minutes.

“We’re looking at that in seconds as being what we need,” he said. “Each truck crossing between Norway and Sweden has to stop, the driver has to get down, he’s got to queue up, go to the window and present his paper and reference e number, and then the office checks. We’re looking at trying to automate all of that.”

He said it will be up to Ireland how to implement the EU’s customs code. But he warned that even though the ambition is for a free-flowing border, revenue needs to satisfy the EU and also other EU countries that the border is secure, for the sake of brand Ireland.

“We can’t risk that brand becoming contaminated or open to question. And even within the EU, if for example France were to suspect and have some evidence that a shipment of Irish lamb destined for the restaurants of Paris actually contained New Zealand leg of lamb, they would be perfectly within their rights to suspend our rights as EU members and to check every Irish container,” he said.

“If we fail to operate an EU external border adequately, that’s what the danger is. That we ourselves could compromise our position within the EU, and in our exports markets elsewhere in the world. So we’re playing for very high stakes here.

“And as a senior EU official said to me recently, you can do anything you like as long as you’re prepared to pay the price. And the price may be, loss of markets, fines, so there’s a limit to what we can do, there’s a limit to our flexibility.”

But he said the Government’s ambition can be realised.

“What the Taoiseach has articulated is deliverable," he said.  "How exactly, we don’t know, because we don’t know exactly what the details of the negotiating outcome will be. Certainly in principle it is deliverable to have continued free movement of people and goods on the island.”

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