Supply chain · 20 October 2017

Northern Ireland retailers fear surge in smuggling and illicit trade after Brexit

The UK's proposals for a "soft" border in Northern Ireland were criticised for potentially opening the door to the black market
The UK’s proposals for a “soft” border in Northern Ireland were criticised for potentially opening the door to the black market

Over half of retailers in Northern Ireland fear an increase in cross-border criminality after Brexit, according to lobby group fighting illicit trade on both sides of the Irish border.

Cross-border research undertaken by Retailers Against Smuggling (RAS), an organisation representing over 3,000 small retailers in the Republic of Ireland, found that 55 per cent of retailers in Northern Ireland believed the illegal smuggling of goods had “noticeably” increased in recent years, with 44 per cent of counterparts in the Republic stating the same.

Survey findings, drawn by RAS, also revealed a lack of trust in the relevant authorities to tackle illicit trade in the region. Low conviction rates were cited as a strong cause of the trust deficit. In 2016, there were 1,875 seizures of illegally smuggled alcohol goods brought into the Republic, but just four convictions in the whole year.

Meanwhile, a third of all retailers based closely to either side of the Northern Ireland border expressed fears that Brexit will lead to a greater black market presence along the border, which threatened to undercut their own businesses.

To tackle illicit trade through both countries, border retailers surveyed believed criminalising the purchasing of illegal goods would help product their business.

Detailing how illegally imported tobacco products and cigarettes had affected his business, Benny Gilsenan, an RAS spokesperson and small business owner in Ireland, said “smuggling was a constant concern” for retailers both sides of the border.

“When a customer doesn’t buy their cigarettes in my shop, that means they’re not buying their pint of milk, they’re not buying their sliced pan. It has a huge knock on effect on small businesses,” Gilsenan explained.

A roundtable, attended by HMRC and political parties from both Northern Ireland and the Republic, was held in Dublin this week to address the threat of the black market after Britain leaves the EU.

Following the summit, RAS outlined a series of recommendations for governments on both sides of the border to consider, including further resources for customs officials to tackle smuggling, as well as stronger legislation to protect small business owners from the illicit trade of alcohol, tobacco and fuel.

A “smugglers charter”

Back in August, Mark Daley, deputy leader of the Irish opposition party Fianna Fail, said the UK government’s proposals of “soft border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – allowing goods to travel freely without checks – would only exacerbate existing cross-border smuggling.

“It would be a smugglers charter. Our border would be a back door into Europe so people would import goods that are cheaper under tariff arrangements with the UK then bring them into the Republic, then onto the EU,” Daley argued.

Read more: Could DUP deal give Northern Ireland enterprise the support needed?

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Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.