Brexit in Northern Ireland – life-changing or much ado about nothing?

By James Gould

The Irish border at Newry

As the clock ticks rapidly towards the UK’s departure from the EU, businesses in Northern Ireland have revealed they are still very much in the dark about the potential impact on their lives and livelihoods.

Aodhán Connolly, Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium – the high-profile trade representative association – believes it is hard to predict what will happen in the short-term let alone in several months or years’ time.

He told me told me that it was entirely possible we could see some “disruption” to our lives and, indeed, potentially, “price rises” of goods.

Mr Connolly says they will definitely see some small changes from the get-go on December 31, with all retailers needing to be part of a self-certification process.

In addition, products which are not going to retailers, such as ingredients going to manufacturers and processors, will need an EHC.

Some chilled meat products, such as sausages, will also need an Export Health Certificate from the start of January.

However, he says it is difficult to say if there will be a much greater impact on retailers which would then potentially have a detrimental effect on the consumer and he says it could be some time before any impact is realised.

“Since the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement, we have been clear that the Northern Ireland Protocol was better than no deal,” he said.

“However, to protect Northern Ireland households from unaffordable price rises and availability issues there needs to be long term workable solution that removes the myriad sources of friction.  

“The agreement in principle to remove tariffs on goods going to Northern Ireland consumers is very welcome and will remove one source of friction in the movement of goods between GB and NI. “

However, Mr Connolly said retailers were still unsure about the exact processes needed to move food to Northern Ireland.

“Therefore, the Government needs to assure them how this will be done without additional bureaucracy,” he added.

“There will also be considerable challenges in the medium term. The details of this agreement need to be the baseline for further deliberations and not the end result.

“We cannot guarantee that there will not be some disruption and price rises. What we can say is retailers are working as hard as possible to mitigate these changes.”

Meanwhile, the debate over the need for some kind of border goes on and news analysis website, the ‘Conversation’ warns that while goods produced in the EU and in Northern Ireland will be able to continue circulating freely as they do at the moment without any formalities, additional costs and tariffs, there will additional checks needed between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The ‘Conversation’ says this is necessary so that that businesses in Great Britain and the EU “don’t free-ride on the arrangement and can’t simply use Northern Ireland as a gateway for exports in either direction without paying the necessary customs charges that will come into force as a result of Brexit.”

However, in its document, the ‘UK Approach to the NI protocol (May 2020)’, the Cabinet office moves to reassure about any worries regarding major change.

The protocol says Brexit “should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities”.

“In that context it is important for us all to recall that the clear majority of Northern Ireland’s trade is with the rest of the United Kingdom,” the document says.

“So, safeguarding the free flow of goods within the UK’s internal market is of critical importance to Northern Ireland’s economy.”

In addition, it makes reference to businesses from Northern Ireland having “unfettered” access to the whole of the UK market “as well as the guaranteed ability to trade freely within the EU Single Market.

Despite the ‘reassurance’ offered by the Cabinet office, it seems uncertainty is still a common theme currently running through the local farming sector.

For example, young Co Armagh beef cattle farmer, James Waugh, claims everyone he knows in the farming community, is feeling some level of trepidation about Brexit.

The 20-year-old who is a member of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster, admits to being “extremely concerned” about the future.

“This is my family business and I am worried it will be changed beyond recognition,” he said. “I worry about livestock availability, and increased prices which will fall to the consumer.”

Apart from his own farming business, he said he also had many friends working in different parts of the industry with different fears such as Some fresh food supplies will decrease

James said the worst scenario was leaving the EU without a deal.

“If this happens there could be a massive impact on beef farmers right across Northern Ireland,” he added.

The Portadown farmer is part of the new generation of farmers who while learning their trade from traditional methods of farming, are open to new ideas and innovation.

James said he was keen to explore possible opportunities out of Europe.

“This could pave the way for a brand-new UK agricultural policy that provides a solid framework for the beef industry to become more productive and expand,” he said.

The UK voted ‘yes’ to leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum.

Four years on, with just days until departure on December 31, the heated debates between the remain and leave camps continue to rage.

Due to its geographical and historical position, Northern Ireland has become a centrepiece in all of the political wrangling and the issue has been complicated by the fact that when the votes in 2016 were counted and then regionally broken down, it was found that a majority of nearly 56% of people had actually voted to remain.

Now with the final countdown under way, it would appear there is still a lot of ambiguity over the possible impact of Brexit – and whether people in Northern Ireland will actually experience any major difference to their everyday lives.

Indeed, it seems that the final proof of the Brexit pudding may not be known until many months from now.

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