No solution yet to ‘big problem’ of animals, food crossing Border

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with EC president Donald Tusk. Picture: Getty

‘Max fac’ system looked at by EU to track goods, but won’t work for agri-food sector

The continued movement of animals across the Irish Border is the biggest area of concern for the EU ahead of a no-deal scenario.

Officials believe that arrangements can be put in place for tracking ordinary goods brought into the Republic from Northern Ireland to help avoid a hard Border.

Sources say EU agencies are looking at a version of ‘maximum facilitation’, which was once derided by the Irish Government and EU as “magical thinking”.

The ‘max fac’ system involves the use of technology to electronically track goods belonging to ‘trusted traders’ crossing the Border.

However, it will not resolve the question of how to monitor livestock and food produce moving between the two jurisdictions. The all-island economy is hugely reliant on the ability of farmers to transport animals and products, including milk, without interruption.

However, the only way of avoiding some form of border checks for the agri-food sector will be if Northern Ireland continues to operate under EU rules.

“Customs is the one area where max fac could actually work – but the big problem is animals. Agriculture is the trickiest part and there’s no solution at the minute except the backstop,” said a source familiar with the no-deal preparations in Brussels.

The Irish Farmers’ Association says thousands of animals and huge volumes of agriculture produce, worth more than €2bn, move over and back across the Border for processing every year. Ministers discussed the impact of Brexit on agriculture at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting.

Talks have already taken place with the EU about emergency funding for the sector, but an amount has not yet been agreed. The Cabinet was told that no-deal preparations must now be the “absolute priority” for all departments.

In the Dáil, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar accused Opposition politicians of engaging in “conspiracy theories” when they questioned the detail of these engagements.

Mr Varadkar confirmed talks have taken place with the EC but said “nobody knows for sure what would happen” in a no-deal scenario.

“I can say that we have made no preparations for a hard Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and no preparations for physical infrastructure, checks or customs controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Even in the event of no deal, we believe the United Kingdom continues to have obligations under the Good Friday Agreement,” Mr Varadkar said.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said that in spite of “months of denials” it now seems there have been “very substantial discussions” with the EU on how cross-Border trade will be handled in the event of a no-deal situation.

He noted that Transport Minister Shane Ross was previously caught on tape being “slapped down” by Tánaiste Simon Coveney for saying plans were being drawn up for Border checks.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald has said the erection of a hard Border after Brexit is not an excuse for people “to take up arms”.

Ms McDonald was asked about recent letter bombs sent to a number of transport hubs in London. Gardaí and UK authorities have linked the packages to dissident republicans.

The Sinn Féin leader said there are “no circumstances, no excuses, no scenario in which anybody would have a justifiable cause to take up arms”. She said people on this island have “embraced a new reality of relative stability”.