“Living on the border, we’ve all engaged in a wee bit of smuggling,” recalls Declan Breathnach , Fianna Fáil TD for Louth. “It was seen in the past as an acceptable way for a guy to supplement his income. But we’ve moved way beyond that. It’s not what someone takes in their car, it’s what’s coming in lorries.”
Given the Border’s intricate networks of back roads, unofficial crossings, currency and tariff mismatches, a little bit of smuggling was unavoidable during the bad days.
However, organised criminals have made millions from smuggling cigarettes, fuel and alcohol across the Border even after the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
The UK government’s tariffs proposal, announced on Wednesday, is dramatic. It would see no import tariffs on goods coming from Ireland to Northern Ireland, while London would impose no new checks or controls on such goods.
The announcement was couched in the language of peace and commerce, referring to Northern Ireland’s “unique social, political and economic circumstances”.
The proposal is a perfect storm for smuggling, however. Leave an open border dividing differing customs rules and there’s a high risk of smuggling, says Carol Lynch, a partner in BDO Dublin’s customs department.
Others are more forthright: “[It’s] almost legitimising smuggling, it’s inviting it. It’s that bizarre – it’s accepting smuggling is going to happen,” says Paul MacFlynn, a Belfast-based economist with the Nevin Economic Research Institute .
Those who policed border trade – both legal and illegal – are aghast, including Cork-born Tim Mullan who runs a guesthouse in Dundalk. He served for 30 years as a customs officer.
“Smuggling? I can see guys who used to be involved years ago rubbing their hands at the moment,” he says. “Very often, the smuggler is ahead of the officialdom, they can find loopholes quicker than we know they’re there.”
Export subsidies on animals or grain in the past were ruthlessly exploited, where animals and goods were smuggled again and again: “The animals used to be dizzy going around,” he says.
The UK ’s plan not to police its own borders “in effect, it turns the UK into a fiscal rogue state”, one former Revenue official says. “If it’s not going to keep its bargain within international rules, then that creates problems for all of your neighbours. I think it’s a disaster,” he says.
Retail Ireland director Thomas Burke says shops have been “acutely aware” for years about smuggling, while the British move “may unintentionally create conditions that encourages such behaviour”.
“Any divergence in practice or standards on either side of the Border would inevitably further incentivise such behaviour and would immediately disadvantage compliant businesses,” he says.
The potential blow to co-operation between Revenue, HM Revenue and Customs, the Garda and the PSNI could also smooth things for smugglers, he says.
He recalls stories of HMRC inspectors who would visit counterparts in Donegal, quietly exchanging briefcases of documents. “There is currently a very high level of cooperation between Gardaí, PSNI and Revenue, if the UK is not going to police its side of the border, then cooperation ends. Then smuggling becomes rife.”
A Revenue official shares these concerns: “It’s like policing and criminal law and mutual assistance requests; there will still be cooperation, but to what level will it be affected?”
Fianna Fáil TD Declan Breathnach emphasises that smugglers today are not sole operations, but organised gangs: “We’re not talking about the guy doing a run down in his car to do a bit of fuel. We’re talking about people who employ chemists for diesel laundering.”
And it will go beyond just the smuggling of goods: “There was clearly evidence in the past that some of the large smugglers facilitated people smuggling, such as Afghanis, into the state,” said another ex-Customs officials.
For veteran Brexit watchers, the newly proposed no-deal border rules are another indication of the disorganisation at the heart of UK politics. “It’s basically admitting they don’t have a solution,” says Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast. But for those who have spent a lifetime on the Border, it’s more than that. “The natives,” says Mr Breathnach, “are growing restless.”