UK to spend millions to ease Brexit red tape for N Ireland

The British government will spend up 355 million pounds ($465 million) to help businesses in Northern Ireland deal with the red tape caused by Brexit, officials said today.

Brexit’s supporters, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, say leaving the European Union will be a boon for U.K. businesses. Many economists are skeptical of that claim, and Brexit presents special challenges for Northern Ireland, which shares a border with EU member Ireland.

Britain left the 27-nation bloc on Jan. 31 but it remains bound by the EU’s rules until the end of 2020, when a post-Brexit transition period expires. The two sides are trying to negotiate a new trade agreement before the deadline, but remain far apart on key issues including competition rules and fishing rights.

A withdrawal agreement between the two sides requires the all-but-invisible border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to remain free of customs posts and other barriers. That means there will be new checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

The British government says these will be minimal, and is setting up a Trader Support Service to help Northern Ireland firms handle customs declarations and other paperwork involved in importing goods. The government says it will commit up to 200 million pounds ($235 million) for the service over five years, and will also spend up to 155 million pounds ($182 million) on new technology.

On a visit to Northern Ireland, Minister Michael Gove, who is in charge of U.K. Brexit preparations, denied there would be “a border down the Irish Sea.”

“Northern Ireland businesses, Northern Ireland people will continue to have totally unfettered access to the rest of the U.K,” he said, though he acknowledged there would be some new ”bureaucratic processes.”

Friday’s announcements also include 300 million pounds ($353 million) for peace and reconciliation projects in Northern Ireland.

Many in Northern Ireland worry that Brexit could undermine the peace process, which ended three decades of violence, by hardening the border with the Irish Republic.

Supporters of Brexit say leaving the EU’s single market for goods and services will let Britain strike new trade deals around the world. Talks are underway with major countries including the U.S. — which have made slow progress — and Japan.

British and Japanese negotiators met this week in London and said Friday they were close to a deal but not quite there yet. Japan is Britain’s fourth-largest trading partner outside the EU. Tricky topics in the trade talks include cars and agriculture.

Britain’s International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, said the two sides had “reached consensus on the major elements of a deal – including ambitious provisions in areas like digital, data and financial services.” She said the two nations hoped to strike a deal this month.