The New UK border controls create a competitive advantage for Northern Ireland firms

John McIIroy | 05 Feb 2024 | General

For companies sending goods into the UK, this month marks the start of a new relationship with customs officials and paperwork. The UK’s Border Target Operating Model (BTOM) came into force on January 31st, creating additional Safety and Security controls to all imports, and Sanitary and Phytosanitary controls to imports of live animals, germinal products, animal products, plants and plant products.

The additional paperwork, and cost, are an inevitable consequence of the UK leaving the EU and rejecting any notion of a soft exit. While the UK-EU Trade and Cooperating Agreement ‘got Brexit done’ without the need for tariffs and quotas it still created new customs declarations and paperwork. For the food industry, it also added Sanitary and Phytosanitary border controls that typically involve more extensive checks, specialist paperwork and frequent physical inspections on products of animal origin.

The BTOM is an attempt to simplify the new border checks through a risk-based approach that reduces the need for checks on lower-risk items, increased use of technology, an Accredited Trusted Trader scheme, and a gradual switch to a UK Single Trade Window that will provide a single gateway for all requirements.

However, in the immediate term producers of medium-risk animal products, plants, plant products, high-risk food, and feed of non-animal origin from the EU will need to produce health certificates with their goods from 31st January.

Northern Ireland

The BTOM also presents a practical demonstration of the competitive advantage Northern Ireland has under the rules negotiated as part of the Windsor Framework. This is best shown by comparing the paperwork required by companies based in Northern Ireland and those based in the Republic of Ireland.

  • Companies based in Northern Ireland who move ‘Qualifying Northern Ireland Goods*’ can send their goods to Great Britain without any paperwork. Companies in the Republic of Ireland must now comply with the BTOM rules if they are sending goods to Great Britain.
  • Of course, being based in the EU means that companies in the Republic of Ireland have unfettered access to the continental market. But hold on, companies based in Northern Ireland also have free access to the rest of the EU thanks to the Windsor Framework.

The most recent data from the Northern Ireland Research and Statistics Agency shows that sales to markets outside Northern Ireland are worth £30 billion. Having free access to two trading unions now places companies based in Northern Ireland at a competitive advantage to grow this further.

As a result, increasing sales outside of Northern Ireland should be at the heart of any strategy for companies and local agencies supporting economic development. At the same time, it makes Northern Ireland a more attractive place for international investors looking to expand their operations.

We recently produced a report on the Global Outlook for Trade and Investment in 2024 and several global growth sectors have a strong Northern Ireland connection. Aerospace, renewables, and life sciences are all areas where Northern Ireland performs well, and understanding how to use dual access to your advantage can add a further competitive advantage.

The biggest risk under the Framework is regulatory divergence between the UK and EU which makes it difficult to maintain free access. Whether this happens, and what impact it has, remains to be seen, but as several business representatives from Northern Ireland have pointed out the improved relationships between the EU and the UK will make it easier to manage any identify and negotiate a solution.

As the unique advantages of the Windsor Framework become real, now is the time for companies to seize the moment, and for those with an interest in seeing the Northern Ireland economy grow to promote the opportunity as much as possible.

Helping local companies expand internationally is a key objective for a firm like OCO, who have a headquarters in Belfast and offices around the world. We are experienced helping clients understand the implications of Brexit related trade and can bring a wide range of skills and global resources depending on needs. To find out more contact us here


* Qualifying Northern Ireland Goods are described as those in free circulation in Northern Ireland. That means not under a customs procedure or in an authorised temporary storage facility.