The outcome of the UK referendum on Brexit will have far-reaching implications for the movement of freight throughout Europe, and especially here on the island of Ireland where the UK will share its only land border with the EU post-Brexit.  In the event of a bad or no deal for the UK, Northern Ireland stands to be disproportionately affected compared to Great Britain, due to the nature of all-island supply chains.

Businesses in Northern Ireland are more reliant on the ability to transport their goods into the EU than similar businesses in Great Britain, which is illustrated by the types of Operator Licences utilised in both regions.  To operate a Goods Vehicle, the operator must have a valid Operator’s Licence that is issued by the relevant Government departments to ensure operators are compliant and viable.  There are three types of Operators Licence:

  • Restricted: Carry own goods only in UK & EU 
  • Standard National: Hire & Reward in UK only
  • Standard International: Hire & Reward work in UK, EU & beyond

As the above figures illustrate, 27% of Operator Licences in Northern Ireland are for ‘International’ work compared with only around 10% of Licences in Great Britain.  Indeed, Northern Ireland operators hold more International Licences than Scotland and Wales combined, as well as more than other larger UK regions.

Commercial goods vehicle traffic across the Irish border was estimated at 4,677,772 vehicle movements for the year 2016 (Source: Irish Revenue & Customs analysis of TII Data).  This works out at a staggering 12,788 commercial vehicle movements daily across the border.  It’s also worth highlighting that compared to 2014, commercial vehicle traffic across the Irish border has increased by 21.4%.  This is a clear demonstration that both economies, North and South, are becoming increasingly reliant on one another as our supply chains become more entwined.

If customs checks were to be imposed on cross border traffic, even at a minimal 1% of transactions, then we would see around 128 physical inspections of goods vehicles daily.  The impact of such checks would be additional costs for transport operators, as well as significant delays to transit times and the resultant missed schedules for businesses on both sides of the border.

Customs checks on items such as manufactured goods are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the types of controls required, and there is potentially an even bigger problem facing supply chain logistics on the island of Ireland.

Council Directive 97/78/EC of 18 December 1997 states that food products of animal origin, including meat, entering the EU shall be subjected to veterinary checks.  There are three elements to these checks:

  1. Documentary Checks: Verifying the veterinary certificates and documents accompanying the consignment.
  2. Identity Checks: Checks to ensure products in vehicle match those described in documents.  This will mean physical inspection of the vehicle to check seal numbers.
  3. Physical Check: Here the consignment is physically inspected, which can include examining the packaging, checking temperatures, sending samples for analysis to a laboratory and vets may smell or taste a product.

Veterinary checks must take place at the physical point where goods enter the EU, so without some special agreement being reached, veterinary checks and the associated infrastructure would have to be put into place at the Irish border in order to protect the integrity of the European food supply chain.  This would result in every such load having to stop to lodge documents, ID checks and potentially a physical inspection.

The UK may also have to reciprocate such checks for goods entering Northern Ireland and Great Britain as potential future trade partners will want to limit the UK market from the supply of similar EU products that they wish to sell us instead.

The Government often states it does not want to see a return to the border of the past:  instead, it is the border of the future that they are concerned about.  To ensure that freight can continue to flow smoothly, FTA’s members are keen to ensure that the final Brexit agreement makes Northern Ireland a bridge between the UK and the EU rather than a hard border.

Seamus Leheny, Policy Manager – Northern Ireland, Freight Transport Association