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Routine checks on GB-NI trade removed under deal to restore Stormont devolution

A command paper has committed to replacing the green lane process on checking goods (Liam McBurney/PA)
A command paper has committed to replacing the green lane process on checking goods (Liam McBurney/PA)

Routine post-Brexit checks on goods shipped from Great Britain to final destinations in Northern Ireland are to be removed as part of a Government deal to restore powersharing at Stormont.

A command paper titled “Safeguarding The Union” commits to replacing the current green lane process, which requires percentages of goods to be checked as they arrive from Great Britain, with a “UK internal market system” that will govern the movement of goods that will remain within the United Kingdom.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has hailed the move as a key concession that will effectively scrap the contentious so-called Irish Sea border for goods destined to remain within the UK.

“There should not be a border within the UK internal market. These proposals remove that border,” he said.

The measure is part of a wide-ranging deal agreed between the DUP and the Government that is set to bring about the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland after a two-year hiatus.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said restored powersharing in Northern Ireland offered the prospect of a “brighter future”.

Mr Sunak told the Commons: “After two years without an executive, there is now a prospect of powersharing back up and running, strengthening our Union, giving people the local, accountable government that they need and offering a brighter future for Northern Ireland.”

The DUP has agreed to drop its two-year blockade of Stormont in exchange for the Government measures aimed at addressing its concerns about post-Brexit trading arrangements that created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The Stormont Assembly could sit again as soon as Saturday.

While Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has secured the backing of party colleagues to accept the deal, there are those within the DUP who remain deeply sceptical of the proposed agreement to restore powersharing.

Speaking in the Commons, East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson voiced his concerns as he heavily criticised the Government.

“When the Northern Ireland Assembly sits, ministers and Assembly members will be expected by law to adhere to and implement laws which are made in Brussels, which they had no say over and no ability to amend, and no ability to stop,” he said.

“This is a result of this spineless, weak-kneed, Brexit-betraying Government, refusing to take on the EU and its interference in Northern Ireland.”

Under the deal, the post-Brexit red lane for transporting goods from GB to NI and on into the EU Single Market will remain, but the command paper offers measures aimed at reducing the volume of trade required to use that red-tape heavy route, with a prediction that 80% of goods will now move free of routine checks through the internal market system.

It is understood the EU has been kept up to date with the shape of the Government’s package of measures.

Downing Street has said the deal contains “significant” changes to the Windsor Framework’s “operation”, but is not about altering the “fundamentals” of the framework.

But Sir Jeffrey insisted the deal had resulted in “clear” changes to the Windsor Framework.

If there are any changes to the framework, they would be examined and decided upon within the existing EU/UK Joint Committee system.

A move already approved by the Joint Committee, and announced on Tuesday, will see Northern Ireland given barrier-free access to internationally sourced agri-food goods that are currently freely available in GB through UK free trade deals with other countries.

Irish deputy premier Michael Martin suggested Brussels would have a role in approving the moves announced on Wednesday.

“I think the EU Commission will look at this,” he told reporters after meeting political leaders in Belfast.

“I think that’s the whole purpose of the Joint Committee and indeed the various mechanisms that are in the Windsor Framework is to go through issues as they arise.

“But I do not anticipate any particular difficulties in respect of the EU side.”

The command paper said the replacement of the green lane would ensure there will be “no checks when goods move within the UK internal market system save those conducted by UK authorities as part of a risk-based or intelligence-led approach to tackle criminality, abuse of the scheme, smuggling and disease risks”.

The paper adds: “This will ensure the smooth flow of goods that are moving within the UK internal market.”

As well as moves to cut Brexit bureaucracy on Irish Sea trade, the command paper includes a series of measures aimed at providing assurances around Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom.

Legislation will be tabled with the purpose of “affirming Northern Ireland’s constitutional status underpinned by, among other provisions, the Acts of Union”.

The paper said: “The legislation will affirm Parliament’s sovereignty over all matters in Northern Ireland, and address the concern that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position in the Union has been weakened by the creation of specific arrangements for trade in goods.”

The Government has also pledged to amend domestic law, specifically section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, to affirm the fact that new EU laws will not automatically apply in Northern Ireland, and must first be subject to democratic oversight by the Stormont Assembly.

The oversight procedures already outlined in the Windsor Framework include the so-called Stormont brake mechanism that enables 30 or more MLAs to flag a concern about a new EU law planned to come into effect in Northern Ireland. The Government is obliged to assess whether those concerns meet a threshold that could then result in the UK vetoing the application of the law in the region.

Legislation promised in the deal is set to be fast-tracked through Parliament on Thursday to enable the swift restoration of the institutions at Stormont.

The command paper also includes commitments to ensure Northern Ireland goods will always be able to be sold in the GB market regardless of any divergence in EU and UK standards.

In respect of further UK divergence from EU standards, there is also a legal requirement that new Westminster legislation is assessed as to whether it “impacts on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain”.

Stormont Assembly
The Stormont Assembly could sit again as soon as Saturday (Liam McBurney/PA)

If it does, there will be a statutory duty for the relevant minister to make a statement “considering any impacts on the operation of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market”.

A requirement that saw certain goods sold in Northern Ireland to display a label stating “not for sale in the EU” will now to extend to cover the whole UK.

The Government is also creating two new bodies.

An UK East-West Council will bring together representatives from government, business and the education sector from Northern Ireland and Great Britain to “identify opportunities for deepening connections between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in areas such as trade, transport, education and culture”.

Intertrade UK will promote trade within the UK. Among its roles will be to proactively communicate with businesses that currently choose not to sell products in Northern Ireland and identify solutions that could enable them to expand their services to the region.

Other measures in the deal include a drive to press ahead with the stalled devolution of corporation tax powers to Northern Ireland and a commitment from Government to hold cabinet meetings in periodically in the region.

The Government will also enter into exploratory talks with the US on allowing pre-clearance checks on customs and immigration to take place at Belfast International Airport on passengers flying directly to the US.

There are no direct flights at the moment but the move is being seen as a potential incentive for airlines to consider operating routes from Northern Ireland to the US.

The return of Stormont will see the Treasury release a £3.3 billion package to support under-pressure public services in Northern Ireland.

The financial package, announced by the Government before Christmas, includes money to settle the demands of striking public sector workers in the region this year.