MPs told trade proposals to deal with land border cannot be applied in case of Protocol

Trade expert says businesses are successfully adapting to new rules prompted by Northern Ireland Protocol

Shanker Singham told members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster that measures he previously championed with regard to the possible introduction of a land border on the island of Ireland cannot not be applied with regard to the Protocol. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Shanker Singham told members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster that measures he previously championed with regard to the possible introduction of a land border on the island of Ireland cannot not be applied with regard to the Protocol. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

Adopting technology-based proposals originally envisaged for Irish land border checks would not resolve Brexit’s Irish Sea border issue, a trade expert has told Westminster MPs.

Shanker Singham was a key figure in the Alternative Arrangements Commission that outlined a blueprint in 2019 for avoiding the Brexit “backstop” plan advocated by then-prime minister Theresa May.

It proposed using existing technical and digital approaches, along with trusted trader schemes, as a way to manage Brexit checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic without the need for physical infrastructure on the border.

Mr Singham is now involved in the consortium operating the British government’s Trader Support Service (TSS), which helps businesses navigate the red tape created by the UK/EU agreed arrangements that ultimately replaced the backstop — the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Mr Singham said that even the alternative arrangement proposals were based on the presumption that Northern Ireland and the Republic would be in the same regulatory zone for agri-food produce.

Back in 2019, the Commission, which was a non-governmental initiative spearheaded by two Conservative MPs, proposed that the Republic join the UK in a single food standards zone that would maintain alignment with the EU.

Much of the disruption and controversy created by the Protocol relates to the fact that Great Britain has left the single market for goods, while Northern Ireland remains in the EU regulatory zone.

That necessitates a significant number of documentary checks and physical inspections on agri-food goods arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Mr Singham told MPs that the alternative arrangement proposals had been based on Northern Ireland and the Republic aligning on food and plant health standards.

“Even the alternative arrangements proposed a single Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) zone [a measure intended to counter threats to animal, plant and public health threats] on the island of Ireland, we didn’t see a way round around that,” Mr Singham told the committee.

“And given that many of the issues are SPS-related issues on the GB/NI boundary, even going back to alternative arrangements — were governments to do that — would not solve any of the SPS-related problems.

“There is really no other, in my view at least, no other way of doing this — it’s a question of either making the Protocol as least burdensome as possible in terms of how traders use it.

The global trade expert and other representatives from the TSS, which is operated by Fujitsu on behalf of the Government, told MPs that businesses were getting used to the new processes required under the Protocol and shipping volumes had largely held up in the first few months of the year.

DUP MP Ian Paisley insisted the processes were not “light touch”, as the Government had pledged. He highlighted an example of a Northern Ireland trader dealing in Land Rover parts who, he said, had told him last week of having to fill in 23 drop boxes online for each of 70 items in a recent order.

“I appreciate you guys are doing all you can to try and simplify and smooth this system — but it isn’t light touch by any means,” he said. - PA