It is unclear how this figure was calculated. Neither the DUP, DAERA nor the European Commission could confirm the figure.
On 14 January 2022, the DUP published a document, “7 reasons the Irish Sea border must go” highlighting “the impact of the Protocol on Northern Ireland and the wider United Kingdom”.
One of the claims in the document is that “20% of all EU’s checks take place in the Irish Sea”.
FactCheckNI asked the DUP where they got this figure. They did not respond.
Where might the 20% figure have come from?
On March 4, 2021, then DAERA Permanent Secretary Denis McMahon appeared before the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to discuss border control posts and points of entry.
During evidence, he discussed how local border officials carry out Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks that are carried out on live animals and certain types of goods.
He told the committee: “From 4 January 2021 to 28 February 2021, some 57,486 freight units travelled through Northern Ireland points of entry from GB ports. On average, a quarter of those were carrying SPS goods. Of those SPS freight units 71% were retail, so, to give you a sense of it, within SPS, the majority is retail…
“It is worth saying that the scale of documentary checks is huge by any standards. By way of illustration, our population is under 0·5% of that across the European Union, yet the documentary checks, according to the systems that have been completed so far, would represent one fifth of the equivalent documentation right across the EU.
“This reflects the fact that we are dealing with a domestic food distribution system, and not bulk movements of international trade commodities. What is clear is that we are handling a burden of work that is stretching us to the limit and which can only get less sustainable as we move beyond the grace periods — again, depending on what happens —particularly those with regard to retail consignments.”
- What this means
The Northern Ireland Protocol, as part of the agreement of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, sees goods coming from Great Britain checked upon entry to Northern Ireland, as it is treated as an integral part of the EU Single Market.
To protect animal, plant, or public health, the EU requires SPS measures. Three different types of check may be made, when moving SPS-related goods into Northern Ireland from Great Britain:
- Documentary: an electronic check to confirm the right documentation and certification;
- Identity: a check made by DAERA staff at a Great Britain port, of the commercial seal applied to the consignment; and
- Physical: a check made by DAERA staff at a Northern Ireland port, which may include checks beyond SPS compliance.
Note that SPS checks are only one type of EU customs check, and that several others can apply depending on what goods are moving across a border.
Mr McMahon’s statement does not say that 20% of all EU checks take place in the Irish Sea. He says that, based on a calculation, 20% of documentary SPS checks take place in NI – i.e. that one fifth of a certain subcategory of a certain type of check take place here.
When asked to provide details of how this calculation was made, a DAERA spokesperson said: “The AERA Committee was advised that from Jan-March 2021, evidence received from the EU TRACES database indicated that the volume of checks for products of animal origin at NI POE constituted approx 20% of the EU total.”
- European Commission
When the DUP’s claim was put to the European Commission (EC), they said they were unable to categorically confirm or deny the statement, saying that, “Our UK partners have not provided us with any information on this matter but we are aware that different statistics have been cited in the media.”
The EC spokesperson continued: “On average, the consignments entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain tend to be smaller in size and more varied than consignments entering the EU from other third countries. While these goods may be electronically tracked, it does not mean that physical checks and controls are taking place on each and every one of these products. It’s simply a reflection of the movement of goods.
“From our SPS statistics (TRACES system), we can see that Rotterdam performs 33% of physical checks on food products of animal origin, while Belfast only performs 2% and Larne 1.5%. From this point of view, official controls at Rotterdam are definitely more numerous, and more in line with the minimum frequency rates for physical checks laid down in EU legislation.
“In October 2021, the Commission proposed bespoke arrangements to respond to the difficulties that people in Northern Ireland have been experiencing because of Brexit, by further facilitating the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The Commission’s proposals would result in approximately an 80% reduction of official SPS checks and a 50% reduction in customs-related paperwork, while protecting the integrity of the EU’s Single Market.”
The EC also pointed out: “This is however an extremely complex area, which makes it very difficult to compare official controls, as these depend on the type of goods and their marketing stage.”
- Difference between DAERA and European Commission figures?
The European Commission’s response suggesting that only 3.5% of checks take place in the Irish Sea is not actually contradictory with DAERA position, because they are talking about different categories of check.
The EC figures are based on physical SPS checks, whereas the DAERA statement is based on the documentary SPS checks.
Based on all this evidence, the DUP’s claim is unsubstantiated. It is possible that further published information could confirm or deny their claim.