Government to invest £355 million into Great Britain and Northern Ireland trade
The UK government will invest £355 million into launching a new system for moving goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, as a requirement of the EU Withdrawal Agreement.
From January 1 next year, goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain will require customs declarations, since Northern Ireland will continue to follow EU rules on agricultural and manufactured goods and the wider UK will not do so.
The whole UK will leave the EU customs union, but Northern Ireland will have to enforce the bloc's customs at its ports.
The new Trade Support Service [TSS], announced on Friday by chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, will be operational from September and is free for businesses to use.
Gove told the BBC that TSS would hand Northern Ireland the "potential to have the best of both worlds".
He said: "Businesses will have guaranteed unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom, but it's also the case that we're making sure that there is no border infrastructure on the island of Ireland.
"So, Northern Ireland businesses can have access to the European single market."
Trading firms will have to initially register with the service and will receive advice on how Brexit will impact their business and what steps should be taken. They will also be informed of information on the goods that they will be importing which will need to be provided.
The Trade Support Service will then use the information to complete import declarations on behalf of firms, to help ease administrative disruption.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis called the service “unique”, adding that it will “ensure that business of all sized can have import processes dealt with on their behalf, at no cost.”
The government has launched a procurement exercise for the TSS, investing £50 million into initially establishing it and launching its first phase, with the full contract worth up to £200 million. £155 million in additional government funds will go toward digitising the system’s processes.
Although the system will remove some Great Britain and Northern Ireland trade challenges with regard to manufactured goods, there may still be separate issues to resolve on the agricultural side.
Should a free-trade agreement not be reached with the EU, any agri-food products coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain will need to undergo a separate process.
While manufacturers in Northern Ireland have responded warmly to the plans for the TSS, they have stressed that the issue over agri-food products must be dealt with.
Manufacturing NI’s Stephen Kelly commented: "This commitment to cover customs costs is a very welcome first step but there is more still to be done.
"It remains the case that agreement on the future relationship between the UK and EU will remove many potential existential issues so we hope that there is an increased focus on ensuring success in those negotiation for all our sakes."
The Freight Transport Association’s Seamus Leheny also welcomed the plans in removing the burden from the shoulders of Northern Irish businesses, but raised a separate issue about "non-freight" trade, for instance when consumers in Northern Ireland look to buy smaller quantities of certain goods online from suppliers based in Great Britain.
Leheny told the BBC: "Under the protocol, there'll be no right of access, let's say, for NI hauliers to travel and deliver goods into the Republic of Ireland.
"So, it protects the movement of goods around the island of Ireland but doesn't deal with how we actually move those goods. So still a few things to work out, but definitely today this is good news for the industry."
When quizzed during his interview with the BBC about the current status of negotiations over a free-trade deal with the EU, Gove said that he believed talks were on course to deliver a "successful outcome".
Gove said: "I think all the evidence is that we are making progress with the EU but whether or not there is, the UK government will be ready to ensure that the NI protocol is implemented.
"We will be in a position to take advantage of new free trade agreements and Northern Ireland will be benefiting from those as much as the rest of the UK."