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Brexit – Avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland

Peter Legge Peter Legge

Following the second defeat of Theresa May’s Brexit deal in Parliament, the UK government has set out its approach to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland if the UK leaves the EU without a deal on 29 March.

Key points 

  • The UK would not introduce any new checks, controls or customs requirements at the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Some controls away from the border would be needed in limited cases.
  • These measures would only be temporary until a longer term means of avoiding a hard border is agreed.
  • They are unilateral – and EU customs controls and tariffs would still apply to goods imported into Ireland from Northern Ireland.
  • VAT and excise rules would still apply to goods crossing the border.

Border controls and tariffs

In the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, the UK government would not introduce any new checks, controls or tariffs on goods at the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

It would only apply a small number of measures strictly necessary to comply with international legal obligations, protect the biosecurity of the island of Ireland, or to avoid the highest risks to Northern Ireland businesses - but these measures would not require checks at the border. These measures are set out below.

The UK has announced a new temporary import tariff that would apply to imports into the UK after a ‘no deal’ Brexit, but this would not apply to goods crossing from Ireland into Northern Ireland.

This approach will only be temporary, as the government recognises it presents challenges and risks for maintaining control of the UK’s borders (including using a Northern Ireland as a conduit for EU goods to reach the rest of the UK, avoiding the normal UK tariffs).  The UK would therefore enter into discussions urgently with the European Commission and Irish government to jointly agree long-term measures to avoid a hard border.

These are unilateral measures by the UK, and so do not impact the EU customs controls and tariffs that would apply when goods are imported into Ireland from Northern Ireland. It remains to be seen whether the EU would allow Ireland to introduce similar measures. If Ireland does not reciprocate, this could impact the competitiveness of Northern Ireland businesses, as there will be more barriers to exporting from Northern Ireland to Ireland, than vice versa.

Applicable controls

These include:

  • animals and animal products from countries outside the EU would need to enter Northern Ireland through a Border Inspection Post and regulated plant material from outside the EU would require certification and checks at trader premises;
  • high risk plant material entering Northern Ireland from the EU would require electronic pre-notification, replacing the current EU plant passport schemes; and
  • electronic notifications would be required for trade in dangerous chemicals, ozone depleting substances and F-gases.

VAT treatment

Goods arriving from Ireland would still be subject to the appropriate VAT and excise duty as today.

VAT registered businesses that acquire goods from Ireland would continue to account for VAT on their normal VAT returns, as a result of the postponed import VAT accounting that has already been announced by the UK government.

Small businesses trading across the border, not currently VAT registered, would be able to report VAT online periodically, without any new processes at the border. This will impose an additional burden on those businesses, and they will need to consider whether a UK VAT registration is worthwhile.

Irish businesses sending parcels to Northern Ireland would need to register with HMRC and account for UK VAT on these goods (although this would not apply to gifts).

As above, these measures do not impact the Irish VAT treatment. Imports of goods into Ireland would still be subject to Irish import VAT, which would potentially need to be paid when the goods cross the border (although the Irish government has announced it will also introduce postponed import VAT accounting for Irish VAT registered businesses in a ‘no deal’ scenario).

What should businesses do?

While this announcement removes some of the risks for Northern Ireland businesses, substantial issues remain for businesses exporting to Ireland, and importing or exporting to the rest of the EU.

We have been working with clients from a wide range of sectors, covering all aspects of Brexit planning and have outlined some of the essentials to include in your Brexit plan here.