Boris Johnson spoke to local Conservative members in Northern Ireland on Thursday about his Brexit deal and it was… interesting. A video of part of his speech has gone viral — not least because the prime minister said how much of a “great deal” Northern Ireland was getting by staying in the EU's single market and keeping “free movement”, unlike the rest of the UK.
Johnson also insisted there would be no checks at all on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. But questions have been raised about some of his assertions — as well as his delivery, which some people likened to a drunk uncle at a wedding.
We've published the transcript of part of the speech and gone through his claims in detail so you can judge for yourself.
“When you come out of the EU customs union which is what we’ve done, you have to have some way of checking that goods that might attract a tariff going from the United Kingdom into Ireland pay that tariff, if there is to be a tariff.
"The only place you can do it, if you don’t do it at the border, is at the border in Northern Ireland. There will not be tariffs or checks on goods coming from GB to [VIDEO CUTS OUT] NI that are not going onto Ireland, that’s the whole point.
"And the great thing that’s been misunderstood with this is there will not be checks, there will not be checks – I speak as the prime minister of the United Kingdom and a passionate Unionist – there will not be checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain."
Having agreed to a customs border down the Irish Sea, Johnson seems to at least acknowledge that there will have to be customs checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. In terms of goods making the journey the opposite way, it all depends on what the PM means by "checks". Under the terms of Johnson's agreement, businesses will have to fill in export forms on goods moving in that direction..
The forms, known as entry and exit summary declarations, are to ensure that goods leaving a customs area are all accounted for and not at risk of entering the black market. Strictly speaking, the forms do not constitute customs checks, but are an administrative procedure.
Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay admitted in October that these forms will be needed. Johnson himself has previously told MPs that there will be "light-touch checks" between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The EU waives similar administrative procedures for Norway and Switzerland, who are outside the EU's customs union. Trade experts suggest that the UK could receive similar treatment if it aligns with the EU on standards for goods, customs procedures, and customs risk management. The issue is ultimately for the UK to decide about the trade-offs it is prepared to make in its future relationship with the EU.
These checks would not have been needed under Theresa May's deal because under the terms of the so-called backstop she had agreed to, the entire UK would have remained aligned to the EU’s customs procedures and rules until alternative arrangements were in place.
“Because we’re the government of the United Kingdom and we will not institute or implement or enact such checks. And the idea that Tayto crisps from Tandragee are going to be (?) by some process is just nonsense.”
The extent of tariffs and checks between Britain and Northern Ireland is not yet known. It will not be up to the UK government alone to decide which goods require checks. It will be a matter for a joint committee of the UK and the EU to produce a list. And the final arrangements will very much depend on the nature of the future UK-EU relationship.
"So actually Northern Ireland has got a great deal. You keep free movement, you keep access to the single market. But you also have, as it says in the deal, unfettered access to GB.”
This is the section that has most angered Remainers. If Northern Ireland has got such a good deal by effectively staying in the European Union, then why can’t the rest of the UK? In fact Northern Ireland’s deal reflects the "unique circumstances" here and wouldn't be available to the rest of the UK without significant trade offs.
By suggesting that Northern Ireland will keep free movement, the prime minister is probably referring to the longstanding common travel area between Ireland and the UK, which allows Irish and British citizens to move freely between the two islands.
The SNP are likely to seize on Johnson’s remarks to ask why a similar arrangement is not on offer for Scotland, and will also add fuel to one of the party’s favourite attack lines: Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU, is constantly being ignored by London.
“And we can also come out and do free trade deals. The only reason they gave us that deal by the way was because, at the back of their minds, they were still worried that we could come out without a deal.”
It is correct that the UK as a whole can conclude free trade deals, but goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would be subject to checks and possibly tariffs, while a rebate system would be in operation, with businesses having to apply in order to deal with any tariff differential.
Most people involved in the talks argue that what made the deal possible was Johnson accepting a customs and regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Britain (previously a red line for him and Theresa May), and in return the EU agreed to an exit mechanism from the arrangements for Northern Ireland based on consent.
“And even though they could see what the Benn Act was doing to us, they could see how difficult it was, they weren’t quite sure whether the UK government was going to be sufficiently irrational, as they saw it, as to come out with [VIDEO CUTS OUT]
I think in the end we got a great deal and Corbyn, to get back to my point, would chuck that deal away, go off and negotiate his own deal which, you know what he wants to do? As far as I understand Labour policy, the only sort of flotsam…”
Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer was among critics to leap on Johnson’s speech, accusing him of either misunderstanding his deal or lying about it.
The Green party, staunch pro-Remainers, said Johnson was right about Northern Ireland getting a “great deal” and therefore the rest of the UK should get it too.