The UK government is to spend £650m ($847m) on a Brexit support, peace and reconciliation package for Northern Ireland, Michael Gove, minister for the Cabinet Office, has announced.
On Friday’s visit to Belfast, Gove, revealed that £300m of the package is for the PEACE Plus programme, for which funding was pledged in 2019.
At the centre of the new package, £200m will be spent on a new Trader Support Service (TSS) to help businesses in Northern Ireland deal with the complications of bringing in goods from Great Britain.
In addition the government announced £155m to fund digital technology to streamline the new internal UK border created under the government’s Brexit deal from January 2021.
The TSS will be offered free of charge to help traders handle new bureaucracy to move goods across the Irish Sea — turning Boris Johnson’s government into a de facto customs agent for traders.
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, said: “Today’s £650m investment underlines our absolute commitment to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland as we move towards the end of the transition period.”
The Northern Irish Protocol part of the Brexit deal signed by the PM requires all goods entering Northern Ireland to be compliant with EU’s customs code to ensure Brexit didn’t create a trade border in Ireland.
It means all exporters sending goods to the region from Great Britain will have to make formal declarations for the first time — in line with the Northern Irish Protocol agreement.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, said: “Businesses have always been at the heart of our preparations for the end of the transition period.
“This new Trader Support Service backed by funding of up to £200m reinforces this approach – it is a unique service that will ensure that businesses of all sizes can have import processes dealt with on their behalf, at no cost.”
Last November, Johnson was accused of misleading the public about the Brexit deal after footage emerged of him telling firms in Northern Ireland they would need to fill in extra paperwork to export goods.
Liam Smyth, director of trade facilitation at the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) said: “Whilst the funding announcement for the Trader Support Service is welcome, we need to remember that the GB/NI Border model impacts businesses on both sides of the Irish Sea.
“Customs controls that are implemented through electronic means are still controls. For businesses to remain compliant they will have to upskill staff, implement new processes and invest scarce resources to be ready for the end of the transition period which is less than five months away.
“Until we know the outcome of the UK/EU negotiations, many questions will remain unanswered for businesses in the United Kingdom, and in particular in Northern Ireland where both the EU and UK customs rules will be applied, depending on the final destination of the goods.”
Responding to the government’s announcement, Allie Renison, head of Europe and trade policy at the Institute of Directors (IoD), said: "The launch of this service is a welcome step forward, providing industry in Northern Ireland with planning support. However, what traders need most of all is the detail of changes they can't yet see and enough time to adjust.”
Renison added that time is running out to enable a “smooth exit from transition” and that the “continuing negotiations with the EU are the reason” that detail is not yet forthcoming.