The economics of cross-border smuggling explained (in a physics class)

How will border customs look after Brexit? Photo: Mal McCann

I MUST admit I was never much good at physics, despite the best efforts of our talented teacher in St Pat's Armagh. It's 30 years ago now and I gave the subject up after (barely) passing it at O-Level, but I do have fond memories of my double physics classes first thing on a Monday in the 1980s.

The physics laboratory was quite large and we had those big work benches you sat around on high stools. It was easy enough to hide, grab a wee snooze or snatch the odd whispered chat with others at the table without the teacher catching on, especially if you were at the bench at the very back of the class.

And the south Armagh lads were at the back of the class, alongside the wee city boy from Belfast. The common bond between me and the lads from the likes of Cullyhanna, Whitecross and Crossmaglen was, of course, gaelic football. Almost to a man they were great players or were great supporters of the school teams. But on a Monday morning, many of my south Armagh table-mates seemed to be tired beyond what you would expect from the exertions of a club match the day before. Their fatigue had other origins.

‘What were ye' carryin' last night', a question between dozes would usually go. The answers varied. It might have been TVs, cigarettes, booze, diesel or an assortment of other goods. For those lads, smuggling was just a part of normal life. For the wee boy from Belfast, it was like hearing stories from another planet. Though it shouldn't have been, as years later my father would tell me stories about butter and other baking ingredients being brought from Dublin in the 1940s during the period when rationing was still in place here.

In a book published last year by Oxford academic Peter Leary, called ‘Unapproved Routes: Histories of the Irish Border, 1922-1972', the author uses stories of cross border smuggling, cock-fighting, poaching and other activities to explore how the Irish border was experienced and incorporated into people's lives.

Using various sources, he reports that smuggling became a fact of life. A Protestant farmer in Fermanagh noted that “you couldn't live on the border and not smuggle”; a Monaghan man said it “turned us all into petty criminals”. White bread, butter, shoes, cars, tea, banned books, condoms: all manner of life crossed the border in secret.

When a journalist asked if it might not be better to keep quiet about all the cattle smuggling going on in the 1930s, a farmer responded incredulously: “Sure the whole country's doin' nothin' else. There was never as much craic around here as far back as I remember.”

But what is also clear is the regular economic necessity of the smuggling, the border created massive hardship and inconvenience for people living along it. That's not an excuse, it's just a fact.

My general feeling up to now has been that we'll not be going to back to any hard border post-Brexit, that we'll find a way to keep the trade going in an easy and convenient way. However, my attitude might possibly be overly influenced by my business experience of 2016. Despite my real anxiety after the referendum result in June, the second half of last year was largely similar to the first half. And that seemed to be the experience of many of the business people I spoke to in December when talking about how 2016 had turned out. Indeed, many exporters here had a decent bounce in sales in the second half because of the currency differentials.

And yet we can't relax, as we can't be sure what any trade deal will look like, nor how it might be enforced. I read with interest last week reports of how Irish Revenue officials have been visiting border checkpoints across Europe to investigate how a customs system might be implemented. It was reported in a Dublin newspaper that the officials had visited both the Swiss/Austria and Sweden/Norway borders where they had picked up “a number of interesting ideas”.

It was reported also that Revenue officials were making progress with the European Commission in relation to how monitoring procedures would be put in place. Random mobile checks will be a part of it but there seems to be some confidence that we'll not be returning to the sort of enforcement we saw in the past. Technology, through the use of cameras and other electronic equipment, will have a big role in it all, it seems.

Apparently, there are 50 drivable roads across the Sweden/Norway border (a surprisingly low number I thought) but only a small number have set checkpoints and all commercial traffic must cross the border at these points and stop to declare their goods. This is set to change so that the goods can be declared in advance, but given the Nordics' traditional proclivity for efficiency and practicality, it does leave me wondering how we're going to manage and not create delays at the border once more.

I hope that families on both sides of the border don't have to look again to smuggling to support themselves, even if the stories of the past did make my double physics class a lot easier to endure back in the day.

And needless to say, the understanding of profit margins, the ability to recognise market differentials and the management of risk resulting in the purchasing of products at one price and selling them efficiently at a higher one provided a practical business grounding for those lads that arguably was at least as valuable as learning the theory of Brownian motion. Anybody remember that? I had to look it up . . .

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director of MCE Public Relations

:: Next week: Brendan Mulgrew


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