Lorry driver Tony Grady has lost count of the number of times he has taken his truck on the ferry from Scotland to Northern Ireland, but he can remember how many times he has undergone a customs check.
The answer? “Never,” he says.
All that may change if the Brexit withdrawal agreement negotiated by UK prime minister Boris Johnson with the EU ever becomes law.
The complex, untested plan to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland with the UK’s departure from the EU would keep Northern Ireland legally in the UK customs union but practically under EU customs rules.
How that might work is anyone’s guess given that there is little operational detail in the 64-page Brexit “protocol” for Northern Ireland, published ahead of the UK’s planned exit from the EU on January 31st. There is a broad outline: the UK would collect tariffs for Brussels on EU-bound goods moving from Scotland to Northern Ireland, and Northern Irish firms would be able to reclaim tariffs on goods staying in the North.
Pushing a customs border from the land border on the island of Ireland to a border in the Irish Sea has left those who will face the greatest burden of navigating these arrangements – lorry drivers – flummoxed.
“I don’t really see that working. You are not going to hold up a port,” says Grady, as he drives in the darkness of the breaking Scottish dawn towards Cairnryan to catch the 10.30am P&O ferry to Larne.
This sea journey is, at just two hours, the quickest crossing between Ireland and Britain, explaining why roughly 10 per cent of the roll-on, roll-off freight moving between the two islands takes this route.
About 550 lorries crossed on this route on average every day in 2018, according to data gathered by the Irish Maritime Development Office. There are seven sailings every weekday between Larne and Cairnryan.
The branded lorries of Tesco, Asda and Marks & Spencer driving into this small port village reflect its popularity for next-day deliveries, which keep the shelves of the major supermarket chains stocked with fresh produce.
“We will definitely be the most affected if we are going to get held up,” says the Co Antrim-based driver, who is transporting pasta and beans that originated in Italy and are destined for a major supermarket chain.
“Goods are not going to get delivered. Customers may go elsewhere,” he says, adding that traders may decide to move goods destined for the North directly from mainland Europe to the Republic and then across the Border, thereby avoiding Britain.
The proposed Brexit deal says that nothing prevents the UK from ensuring 'unfettered access' for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK’s internal market
His food shipment landed in freight containers at the port of Felixstowe on the east coast of England the previous day. The final leg of Grady’s journey started at 5am in Carlisle, 180km south of Cairnryan.
From a practical point of view, Grady cannot see customs working in this small Scottish village port, or the two shipping companies – P&O and Stena Line, which serve Larne and Belfast respectively – tolerating checks.
He believes checks could lead to a queue of traffic down the road to a nearby link road where trucks are often parked, with no facilities if bad weather prevents a ferry sailing.
“We are a bit of a thick lot; we just won’t put up with it,” he said.
Tony Grady: ‘We will still move things but slower. It may just be a day late. Hauliers will just bill people for an extra day.’ Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
Grady arrives at the check-in kiosk, where a P&O staff member asks the names of the passengers and what kind of goods he is carrying. A minute later he is on his way and the truck is the first in a queue of about 100 lorries.
“They don’t need to know where it has come from – just what’s in it,” he says, driving away from the kiosk.
“I just don’t think it will change. We will still move things but slower. It may just be a day late. Hauliers will just bill people for an extra day.”