Can Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal avoid a border in the Irish Sea?

Hilary Osborne
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo


There will be no border in the Irish Sea as a result of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.


The prime minister has repeatedly claimed that his withdrawal agreement with the EU does not create friction in trading between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He has said businesses in Northern Ireland will not face checks or fees when exporting goods to Great Britain.

The Conservative party’s manifesto states: “We will ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses and producers enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK and that in the implementation of our Brexit deal, we maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market.”


Presentation slides which appear to have come from the Treasury raise all of the problems that would be caused by an attempt to give Northern Irish exporters unfettered access to the UK market.

The document, presented by Labour at a press conference, suggests there are many potential barriers to unfettered access, and risks associated with such an arrangement.

The slides, entitled NI Protocol: Unfettered access to the UKIM [UK internal market], say that kind of access is “constrained by the international obligations applying to NI by application of EU law”.

It continues: “At minimum, this means that exit summary declarations will be required when goods are exported from NI to GB.” This will involve extra paperwork for exporters, 98% of which are small or medium-sized businesses.

This wording mirrors comments made to a Lords committee in October by Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary.

From the slides, it appears that the exact meaning of “unfettered access” could be interpreted in different ways. A list of interpretations reads:

  • Lack of restrictions on goods being placed on the market?

  • Regulatory alignment?

  • Administrative costs/burdens?

  • Physical inspections and/or related delays?

Also, the amount of friction in trade moving both ways across the Irish Sea is not wholly in the government’s control, but will depend on negotiations with the EU. Friction on the trade route from Northern Ireland will also depend on WTO rules as well as measures introduced by the UK government.

The slides list the compliance risks created by unfettered access, including the risk that Northern Ireland could become a backdoor into Great Britain that would be used by other exporters to avoid import duties and/or regulatory standards.

The impact on Wales and Scotland, and how their governments will respond, is also explored.

“Unfettered access has the potential to undermine the coherence of the UKIM and embed a fundamental asymmetry in its functioning,” the presentation says.

The slides make it clear that Northern Ireland has more to lose than Great Britain from any changes, as it relies much more heavily on this trade route. It suggests prices will rise in Northern Ireland, and there could be “tariff equivalents” on 30% of purchases there.


The Conservatives said the presentation was a “flash analysis” carried out after the deal, and not a “definitive” statement of the situation.

But it suggests that there is still a lot of work to be done before it is established how trade can and will operate between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Negotiations with the EU and Welsh and Scottish governments are needed to determine what checks and processes will be needed.

Although the Conservatives may aspire to a frictionless border, it appears impossible to guarantee one at this stage.