Irish Tax and Customs Administration celebrates centenaryBy Gerry Harrahill, Director General of Customs, Office of the Revenue Commissioners, Ireland
21 February 1923 saw the establishment of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in Ireland, shortly after the fledgling new State gained its independence in December 1922. Almost one hundred years on, the Office, which answers to the Minister for Finance, aims to serve the community by fairly and efficiently collecting taxes and duties and implementing Customs controls. It has a Board of three Commissioners, one of whom serves as Chairman. The current Commissioners are Chairman Niall Cody and Commissioners Gerry Harrahill and Ruth Kennedy. Gerry Harrahill, Director General of Customs, is well known to Members of the WCO through his contributions to Council and other Customs-related fora. This article gives a flavour of the development of Irish Customs over the past one hundred years.
Customs controls on the island of Ireland
The island of Ireland comprises 32 counties (administrative divisions), 26 of which form the Republic of Ireland; 6 counties in the northeast of the island form Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom (UK). Customs controls were introduced along the land border on the island of Ireland on 1 April 1923. Customs controls on goods crossing the border continued until the end of December 1992, when both Ireland and the UK joined the European Union (EU) Single Market. There is no restriction on the movement of citizens across the border of Ireland and the UK thanks to a 1922 agreement between both countries on a Common Travel Area (CTA).
Evolution of Customs controls
In the early days of the Irish State, the internal economy was protected by a range of tariffs. From the 1960s onwards, followed by Ireland’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, Ireland transformed to an open economy. Many labour-intensive heavily mechanized industries such as car manufacturing and tyre manufacturing disappeared and, in later years, the clothing industry largely disappeared too. Instead, Ireland, given its location on the periphery of Europe, and at a remove from the densely-populated centres, concentrated on high-value, low-volume goods, such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and integrated circuits. The attraction of foreign direct investment was facilitated by the implementation of modern Customs control procedures, often in new and far-sighted approaches by Irish Customs.
The successful development of a major Customs free zone, the Shannon Free Zone (SFZ), on the west coast of Ireland, in an area where the attraction of industry was crucial to the economy, was in part facilitated by the post-hoc audit of company records as opposed to the continuous physical checks usually associated with Customs controls. The control mechanism it employed was later integrated into the EU Customs Code.
Since its establishment, the Irish Tax and Customs Administration has had to adapt continuously to changing circumstances, not least of which was the aforementioned evolution of an economy protected by tariffs to an open economy. The creation of the EU Internal Market removed the internal border for economic purposes, leading to the redeployment of Irish Tax and Customs staff to areas such as Vehicle Registration Tax, VAT information exchange and mutual assistance. In general, the Irish Revenue Commissioners endeavoured to retain Customs staff in their location and transfer work to those locations.
The development of IT, the automation of the clearance process, the modernization of processes and procedures, the implementation of risk analysis and profiling techniques, international cooperation and the implementation of a common EU tariff, etc., were all part of the work in responding to the ever-changing and demanding environment in which Customs operated and continues to operate to this day.
Ireland introduced an Automated Entry Process (AEP) in April 1991. This system was an immediate success and, very soon, a high percentage of import and export declarations were being submitted electronically. In November 2021 the Automated Import System (AIS) was introduced to replace AEP and to comply with the updated provisions of the European Union Customs Code (UCC). AIS ensures that businesses can import goods legally from outside the EU using the most efficient process possible. AIS meets the requirements of industry for “just-in-time” deliveries.
Ireland as an external land border of the EU
Following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, Ireland now has a border with a third country. In the period from the mid-1960s until 1998 and the signing of the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement), there was significant turmoil in Northern Ireland, commonly referred to as ‘the Troubles’, during which over 3,500 people died and more than 30,000 were injured, many very seriously. During the period of the Single Market, from 1993 until the UK’s exit from the EU on 1 January 2020, the physical nature of the border had disappeared. The Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), part of the UK’s withdrawal agreement, aims to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland yet ensure the integrity of the EU Single Market. In effect, Northern Ireland remains in the EU Single Market for goods, so goods can flow to and from Ireland to Northern Ireland, and vice versa, without checks and paperwork or tariffs. EU Customs rules and regulations applicable to food products continue to apply on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Aspects of the implementation of the terms of the NIP are the subject of active engagement between the UK and the EU.
Ireland’s 3,000 kilometres of rugged coastline with numerous small coves and isolated locations provides drug smugglers with many opportunities to ply their trade. To prevent drug smuggling, Customs patrols coastal areas and seeks assistance from coastal communities, maritime personnel and the yachting fraternity through a Customs Drugs Watch Programme. In addition to excellent collaboration with Ireland’s National Police and Security Service, An Garda Siochana, and the Irish Naval Service, an Irish Customs officer is assigned to the Maritime Analysis Operations Centre – Narcotics (MAOC-N) in Lisbon, Portugal. Ireland also shares information with other EU countries via the EU Customs Information System, and takes part in a number of WCO and EU initiatives to combat drug smuggling.
Ireland and the WCO
Ireland has played an active part in the WCO since the establishment of the Organization as the Customs Cooperation Council in 1952. Together with the other 16 countries that had acceded at that time, Ireland attended the first meeting of the Council on 26 January 1953. As readers will be aware, the WCO has now expanded to all continents and has 184 Members representing at least 98% of world trade.
Ireland has had two representatives elected to the important and prestigious post of Chairman of the WCO, Commissioner Bartholomew Culligan, who served from 1967 to 1969, and Commissioner Josephine Feehily, who served from 2011 to 2014. Ireland hosted a meeting of the Europe Region in 2008 and the Policy Commission in December 2013. Ireland participates in a wide range of meetings on a regular basis, including all the WCO Committees. Irish Customs legislation is aligned with the International Convention on the simplification and harmonization of Customs procedures (Revised Kyoto Convention) and reflects a wide variety of other recommendations of the WCO.
In 1998, recognizing the increasing demands and importance of attending meetings in the WCO and the European Union, the Irish Revenue Commissioners, with the agreement of the Department of Foreign Affairs, appointed a dedicated Customs Attaché based in the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU in Brussels. Ireland now has two Attachés in Brussels, Eoghan Ryan and Sarah Joyce, supported by a Deputy Attaché, Mark Newman, all experienced in Customs matters. This reflects Ireland’s strong commitment to an effective input into, and collaboration in, the many fora in which Customs matters are discussed and decisions impacting on world trade and supply chain security are taken.
Ireland has had the honour of having its Customs expertise recognized by the recruitment of staff from the Irish Tax and Customs Administration to posts in the WCO. Over many years this has included the recruitment of a Deputy Director and two Technical Officers in the Trade Facilitation Directorate, a Technical Officer in charge of internal IT developments and, in more recent years, a Head of Administration and Personnel, Ray McDonagh, who will be well known to all WCO Members.
Ireland will continue to support the WCO and looks forward to continued cooperation at the highest level. In the words of the Director General of Customs, Commissioner Gerry Harrahill, “Ireland recognizes and appreciates the importance of the WCO not only for the important role it plays in setting standards for the conduct of international trade but also for the opportunities it presents to Members to meet, collaborate and share experiences, and to advance the objective of facilitating legitimate international trade and protecting citizens and society from prohibited, dangerous and illegal products and substances. Ireland will continue to play an active and positive part in the work and development of the WCO in the years ahead”.
Irish Customs has changed a lot since the Office of the Revenue Commissioners was first established one hundred years ago. It played a critical role in the early days of the foundation of the Irish State by ensuring that its economic foundations were well grounded and effective and that the free flow of legitimate trade was enabled. The environment in which Irish Customs operates today is more global in scope with a much broader remit in terms of the role of Customs. The support of the WCO, through its focus on enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of Customs administrations and the opportunities for, and encouragement of, collaboration between Customs administrations, will continue to be a very important input to the evolution of Irish Customs as it embarks on the start of the next centenary of its existence.