Michael Gove vows ‘absolute commitment’ to Northern Ireland as end of Brexit transition period looms
There have been concerns about border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland (PA)
Michael Gove has announced £650 million worth of investment in Northern Ireland, as he pledged an “absolute commitment” to the nation ahead of the UK’s impending exit from the single market.
More than half of the cash unveiled by the Cabinet Office minister is going towards technology to help with trade once the transition period with the EU ends, including £200 million for a new free-to-use 'Trader Support Service' and £115 million towards improving customs technology.
A further £300 million is also being pledged to the PEACE Plus programme, which aims to support peace and reconciliation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Labour warned that major questions about the functioning of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a key part of last year's Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, remain "unanswered".
The extra funding comes at the UK approaches the end of its transition period with the EU, meaning Britain will officially leave the bloc on 31 December.
There has been concern during the Brexit process about the effect of potential checks and controls on goods within the island of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The Government has said it will expand customs facilities in Northern Ireland if no trade deal is reached with the EU by the end of the year, with new electronic import declaration requirements set to kick in under that scenario.
But ministers are insisting no separate customs infrastructure will be built and have said businesses in Northern Ireland will have unfettered access to the rest of the UK market.
Mr Gove said the new funding “underlines our absolute commitment to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland”.
He added: “Our new free-to-use Trader Support Service will provide vital support and guidance to traders, while our £300 million investment in reconciliation projects will help to preserve the huge gains from the peace process and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
“As part of our ongoing engagement with Northern Ireland businesses and the Executive, we are also publishing further guidance for businesses on the operation of the [Northern Ireland] Protocol.
“As we continue to engage with businesses and our discussions with the EU proceed, we will update these resources to ensure that traders are ready for the end of the transition period.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis meanwhile said: “Businesses have always been at the heart of our preparations for the end of the transition period.
“This new Trader Support Service backed by funding of up to £200m reinforces this approach – it is a unique service that will ensure that businesses of all sizes can have import processes dealt with on their behalf, at no cost.”
But while Labour said "any new detail" on the Northern Ireland Protocol was "welcome", the party is warning that ministers have left "left little room for manoeuvre to develop the new system, train staff and prepare businesses by January 1st".
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh said: "Leaving it to the last minute, only adds uncertainty for jobs and business.
“And with time running out, big questions remain unanswered.
"Traders are still waiting for detail on the proportion of physical checks on agri-food goods at NI ports, little is known about which goods will face tariffs, nor on whether exit summary declarations will be needed NI-GB.
"It’s time businesses in Northern Ireland were given the answers they need.”