Largest Irish Sea ferry operator wants six-month phase-in for Brexit controls

Stena Line says many businesses still not ready for January 1st deadline for customs

Stena Line ferries cross the Irish Sea more than 250 times a week

Stena Line ferries cross the Irish Sea more than 250 times a week


The largest ferry company operating on the Irish Sea has urged the EU to introduce a six-month “implementation phase” for post-Brexit customs because many businesses are not ready.

Stena Line, the Swedish company whose ferries cross the Irish Sea more than 250 times a week, said there remained “many unanswered questions”, despite the EU and UK agreeing on Tuesday on how the Northern Ireland protocol for Irish Sea checks will operate under the Brexit deal.

“The systems and infrastructure required for customs checks in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will also not be finalised in time for January 1st, 2021,” said Stena Line’s executive director and Brexit spokesman Ian Hampton.

“With many companies in the supply chain still not ready we believe a further ‘implementation phase’ is required by both the UK and the EU.”

The company, which operates the ports of Holyhead and Fishguard in Wales and sails into Belfast, Dublin and Rosslare, wants the EU to follow the UK’s decision to delay the introduction of full controls on most imports into Britain by six months to ensure there will be no delays.

It joins a chorus of Northern Ireland business groups seeking a period of time to adjust to new border controls and customs arrangements between the island of Ireland and Britain.

Stena said it is in the interests of both the EU and the UK to “prioritise trade flows over customs and agri-food checks at the border.” It said there would be “little risk” after the January 1st deadline for the end of the transition period, with the UK adopting EU rules on Irish Sea trade.

Distribution centres

Stena said that freight logistics networks were geared around processing and distribution centres in the UK, and it was “vital” that the UK “landbridge” route that connected the Republic of Ireland with mainland Europe continued.

The company’s call comes as shipping lines increase the frequency of direct ferry sailings between Ireland and mainland Europe, and introduce new routes to avoid Brexit-related delays in Britain as a consequence of EU-UK border controls going into effect at the start of next year.

Stena, Europe’s largest ferry operator, said UK centres that distribute goods for the retail and pharmaceutical sectors have been set up as part of the landbridge network.

“[They] can’t simply be bypassed by a direct route as you then miss out a key part of the network,” said Mr Hampton.

“The landbridge remains the shortest route for Irish goods to enter the EU market, and vice versa, so it is particularly vital for Ireland that the EU plays their part to keep goods moving through Britain and on to the continent.”

Freight units

Stena carried 750,000 freight units on the Irish Sea in 2019, and some 80 per cent of Irish exports move through its Holyhead and Fishguard ports every year.

The Northern Ireland protocol, part of the Brexit withdrawal deal agreed less than a year, is designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland by putting checks in the Irish Sea.

It remained unclear whether it would become operational as the EU and UK remained divided on how to implement the plan until they reached an agreement in principle on Tuesday.

The EU-UK joint committee, set up to figure out the operation of the protocol, is to publish further details on how the Irish Sea border will work in practice.