New Border: ‘Car stop and search isn’t going to happen’

Senior Revenue official says Border controls could be automated ‘without customs points’

The operation of a post-Brexit customs regime can be automated and simplified and does not need customs points with Northern Ireland, the Revenue Commissioner's lead official on the topic has said.

Tony Buckley, the assistant secretary in charge of customs, said the new plan will involve a type of self-assessment and audit regime, possibly with, for convenience reasons, service offices close to the Border.

What exactly would happen at these service offices or facilitation posts would not be clear until negotiations had been completed between the UK and the EU on their new relationship.

“Cars being stopped and searched is not going to happen,” he told a conference on Brexit in Dublin. “There is no reason for it to happen.”


You can do anything you like as long as you are prepared to pay the price

Asked if he envisaged a system such as the one that exists between Norway and Sweden, he said that border involved delays of approximately 15-20 minutes for trucks.“We’re looking at that in seconds.”

Because a border would be being built “from nothing” there was an opportunity to use very sophisticated tracking and surveillance systems that satisfied the EU, managed the risk, and achieved the Government’s objective of a “very soft borer”.

Mr Buckley said the new regime would probably give rise to temporary criminal and economic issues that would have to be dealt with. However, he said, overall Ireland has two big advantages in terms of dealing with the new situation. The Republic's trade with Northern Ireland is only 2 per cent of all exports, and Ireland is an island at one end of the EU without another land border. If something comes into Ireland, it is in Ireland and that's it, he says.

The post-Brexit regime could involve checks being carried out away from the Border. The Border had approximately 300 crossing points, with 1 million heavy-goods vehicles, 1.3 million light-goods vehicles, and 12.5 million cars, going each way each year.


What would happen post-Brexit is that parties moving goods across the Border would have to lodge documents with the two customs authorities, which they would put into a computerised risk-assessment system.

There would also be random checks on trucks, and checks for certain risky items and traders. This might involve about 2 per cent of all traffic. For another 6 per cent of all traffic, there might be simple document checks.

Mr Buckley told the conference, organised by the British Irish Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Eversheds Sutherland, that 85 per cent of all imports and exports are handled by authorised economic operators, such as DHL and FedEx. Physical checks can be carried out within authorised premises operated by these companies.

The practical difficulties of searching 40ft refrigerated trucks along the Border was not something anyone wanted to contemplate, he said. “So let’s not do it.”

Addressing the same conference, outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the State has made a “good start” to the Brexit process but cannot afford to relax. Mr Kenny said the likely outcome of the trade and tariff negotiations remains unknown and argued that Ireland would need to make sure it looks after its own interests “when the niceties are dropped and the real talks begin”.

How an EU member state fulfils its obligation to protect EU territory and customs and VAT regimes is a matter for each member state, the conference was told. Mr Buckley said he had been told by a senior EU official, “You can do anything you like as long as you are prepared to pay the price”.

He said the European Union is fundamentally a trading block and it's most technically difficult achievement has been the abolition of customs borders. "In effect there is no other customs union in the world. It is a unique achievement."


The complex rules that govern it convince the governments that they can trust each other and do not need to monitor trade.

“This means that if someone steps out, then the fundamental trust and understanding that binds the union is removed.” A monitoring system has to be put back in place to ensure fair play is maintained.

So you have to have customs controls, said Mr Buckley. Customs controls are not really a fiscal tool of any great significance in the western world any more. They are more concerned with matters such as product counterfeiting, arms movements, drugs, and cash, as well as preventing unfair competition. Mis-described goods can create unfair competition. If France were to have reason to believe that some of the Irish lamb it was being sold actually included New Zealand lamb, it could suspend Ireland's rights and check all Irish consignments.

The made-in-Ireland brand is very important for Ireland. If Ireland fails to operate an adequate EU external border, it could compromise Ireland’s position in the EU market and maybe with the whole world, Mr Buckley said. “So we are playing for very high stakes.”

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent