Introduction to moving goods under the Northern Ireland Protocol

Source: Cabinet Office Policy Paper

Moving goods under the Northern Ireland Protocol: Introduction

At the end of the transition period, the Northern Ireland Protocol (‘the Protocol’) will take effect. The Protocol is a practical solution to avoid a hard border with Ireland whilst ensuring the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU as a whole, enabling the entire UK to benefit from future Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). There will be special provisions which apply only in Northern Ireland while the Protocol is in force.

The Protocol is not codified as a permanent solution: it is designed to address a particular set of problems in a way that upholds the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and ensures the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the EU as a whole. It can do so only for as long as it has the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. That is why it is for the elected institutions in Northern Ireland to decide what happens to the Protocol’s alignment provisions in a consent vote that can take place every four years, with the first vote taking place in 2024. For as long as they are in force, the UK will give effect to them in a pragmatic and practical way that minimises the impact on individuals and businesses. The UK Government’s approach to the Protocol was set out in the 20 May Command Paper, The UK’s approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The application of the Protocol will involve some changes for goods movements into Northern Ireland. Our unfettered access policy will ensure that businesses and individuals will be able to move goods from Northern Ireland into the rest of the United Kingdom on the same basis as now. The end of the transition period will, however, mean some new arrangements for goods movements into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland will be unaffected. There will be no new customs infrastructure required in Northern Ireland.

The UK Government has committed to giving businesses the information and support needed to get ready for these changes at the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, and is working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive on these changes. This document outlines in further detail the processes for those movements of goods into, out of and through Northern Ireland that will apply from the end of the transition period. Specific guidance has already been published outlining how VAT processes will operate between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on goods sold by VAT-registered businesses as well as guidance focussed on the movement of excise goods to, from and via Northern Ireland.

In some cases, the applicable regime will need to take account of the outcome of discussions between the UK and the EU in the Joint Committee established under the Withdrawal Agreement. In others, the position is the subject of ongoing consultation or consideration. Where that is the case, the relevant page makes clear where further guidance will be provided in due course.

At the heart of this guidance is the commitment to provide extensive support for businesses engaging in new processes. In particular, the Government will establish a new and unprecedented Trader Support Service. This will provide an end-to-end service which will guide traders through all import processes, including handling digital import and safety and security declarations on their behalf, at no additional cost. The guidance sets out further details on this service and how to register to use it from the end of the UK transition period.

1. Overview

The guidance outlines that, under the Northern Ireland Protocol, the UK Government will ensure that:

  1. Moving goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain should take place as it does now – there will be no additional process, paperwork, or restrictions on Northern Ireland goods moving to Great Britain, delivering unfettered access.
  2. Changes for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be kept to an absolute minimum – with a new Trader Support Service, available to all traders at no cost, to be established to provide wraparound support, alongside guidance on the processes for food and agricultural products designed to uphold the longstanding status of the island of Ireland as a single epidemiological unit.
  3. Trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and EU Member States, will continue unaffected, with no change at the border, no new paperwork, and no tariffs or regulatory checks.
  4. For trade with the rest of the world, Northern Ireland will benefit from UK FTAs – ensuring the benefits of those agreements are felt right across the United Kingdom.

2. Northern Ireland to Great Britain

The UK Government will guarantee in legislation unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the UK internal market from 31 December 2020, ensuring that trade from Northern Ireland to Great Britain continues as it does now. That will mean no declarations, tariffs, new regulatory checks or customs checks, or additional approvals for goods from Northern Ireland businesses to be placed on the UK market. Those goods will be able to be placed on the market in Scotland, Wales and England, whether certified against EU or UK rules.

This special treatment will be available only to Northern Ireland businesses (including businesses headquartered in Great Britain with operations in Northern Ireland). Businesses in Ireland will need to follow the normal process for importing goods into the United Kingdom, including submitting customs declarations and paying any tariff duties that are due. The EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 includes provision for the Government to define a qualifying status for goods and businesses in Northern Ireland benefitting from unfettered access. We are engaging with businesses and the Northern Ireland Executive on the means for delivering qualifying status, and will set out further details shortly.

There will be a very limited range of exceptions to this unfettered access policy. These will apply only in specific instances where goods movements require bespoke processes – such as to take account of binding international obligations, for example the movement of endangered species. In these cases, the relevant trade for which the procedures apply is extremely limited. Complying with these requirements will therefore have negligible implications for trade as a whole. On that basis goods trade will continue as at present – and access will be unfettered.

3. Great Britain to Northern Ireland

As set out in the Government’s Command Paper, The UK’s approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol, there will be some changes for goods movements into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Food and agricultural products – and all goods classified as sanitary and phytosanitary – will be subject to specified processes. These will uphold the longstanding status of the island of Ireland as a single epidemiological unit, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. The Protocol means that UK authorities apply EU customs rules to goods entering Northern Ireland. This entails some new administrative process for traders, notably new electronic import declaration requirements, and safety and security information, for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. These are needed to make sure that tariffs are not paid on trade within the UK and that goods going to Ireland pay tariffs when they should.

We will ensure these electronic processes are streamlined and simplified to the maximum extent, and guarantee that Northern Ireland businesses benefit from the lower tariffs we deliver through our new Free Trade Agreements with third countries. As some of the detailed procedures will depend on the outcome of discussions within the UK-EU Joint Committee, further details will be set out in due course.

In dealing with these new processes, traders in Northern Ireland will have access to a new, free UK Government service, the Trader Support Service, which will undertake those digital processes on behalf of traders. Once registered with the Trader Support Service, businesses will simply need to provide digitally the appropriate information on the goods being moved, and the new service will deal with all associated requirements for free. This unique end-to-end support service will deal with the costs and burdens from the process of moving goods into Northern Ireland. Each business’s EORI number will provide them with a unique reference ID for the service. All traders who wish to draw upon the support should sign up for further information.

4. Northern Ireland to/from the EU

There will be no change for the movement of goods covered by the Protocol between Northern Ireland and EU Member States, including Ireland. That means there will be no new paperwork; no tariffs, quotas or checks on rules of origin; nor any barriers to movement within the EU Single Market for goods in free circulation in Northern Ireland. No EU Member State will be able to apply any tariff or related barriers to goods from Northern Ireland: the EU is obliged under Article 5 of the Protocol to guarantee tariff free, frictionless access in any scenario from 31 December 2020. This does not just apply to movements from Northern Ireland to Ireland: it applies to movements to any other EU Member State, including for example through the use of transit procedures.

Northern Ireland businesses will therefore enjoy unfettered access to the whole of the UK market as well as the guaranteed ability to trade freely within the EU Single Market. Furthermore any approvals or certifications secured in order to place goods on the market in the EU will be recognised when seeking to place the same goods on the market in the United Kingdom – avoiding the need for additional approvals to access the UK market.

This unique arrangement, providing Northern Ireland businesses with both unfettered access to the UK market and free access to EU markets, reflects the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. It is supported and underpinned by the accompanying commitments to preserve the Common Travel Area and to maintain the conditions for North-South cooperation, providing the platform – alongside the commitments made elsewhere by the UK Government – for continued growth and stability in Northern Ireland.

5. Northern Ireland to/from the rest of the world (non-EU)

The overall process for trading between Northern Ireland and non-EU countries will continue broadly as it does today. Further guidance is available:

Export goods to countries outside the EU: step by step

Import goods from outside the EU: step by step

As part of the UK’s customs territory, Northern Ireland will be able to benefit from future UK FTAs. Tariffs may apply for goods imported from the rest of the world (and from outside the EU). The UK’s tariff regime will apply to such movements, unless a good is considered ‘at risk’ of moving into the EU and where UK and EU tariffs differ. The applicable regime will be that determined by the UK-EU Joint Committee in line with Article 5 of the Protocol. Further guidance will be provided on the specific operation of this regime in the light of that Joint Committee decision.

To support traders and avoid burdening business with engaging with any potential complexities in this system, businesses importing into Northern Ireland from the rest of the world will also be eligible for the Trader Support Service. This will enable traders to draw on that service at no additional cost when moving goods from the rest of the world into Northern Ireland.


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