Northern Ireland: post-Brexit utopia or region strangled in red tape?

Brexit was billed as a win-win bonanza for Northern Ireland: access to not one but two single markets — the UK and the EU.

Or as Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president and EU Brexit negotiator, described the new arrangement, it offers the region “jam on both sides of their bread”.

A poll by Queen’s University Belfast this week found the public increasingly agrees, with 52 per cent of respondents seeing the bespoke trading rules for Northern Ireland as “a good thing”, up from 43 per cent in June.

But try telling that to some of the region’s fishermen.

The new trade rules, which controversially introduced customs checks in the Irish Sea in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, have left at least one UK seafood catcher and processor contemplating whether to cut the region out of its supply chain altogether.

Whitby Scampi catches half its produce in Great Britain — the bulk in Scotland — and the other half in waters around the island of Ireland. It processes the tails in Northern Ireland and sends them to Britain for sale. But managing director Daniel Whittle is wondering if that route still makes sense because of post-Brexit veterinary inspections that he described as “utter madness” since they treat Northern Ireland as if it were outside the UK.

Kilkeel Harbour in County Down
Kilkeel Harbour in County Down: 1,200 people are employed by the industry in Northern Ireland’s small fishing communities © Neil McAllister/Alamy

“We don’t have a Scottish site currently. We could open a site and take part of the business — some or all of the processing — to Scotland,” he told the Financial Times. “We’re not committed to anything: we’re looking at the practical costs.”

For the industry and the 1,200 people employed in Northern Ireland’s small fishing communities, that prospect represents an “existential threat,” according to Harry Wick, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation. for whom Whitby Scampi is its biggest client. “It could potentially finish us.”

The region’s deal was cemented in the so-called Northern Ireland protocol of the UK’s withdrawal agreement struck with the EU that kept the region inside the EU’s customs union and single market for goods, despite the UK’s decision to leave.

Because of grace periods, the protocol has not yet been applied in full, but already red tape and the UK’s refusal to accept key parts of what it signed up to, including oversight from the EU’s top court, have put it under severe strain.

Harry Wick of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation
Harry Wick of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation says if Whitby Scampi relocated, ‘it could potentially finish us’ © Jim Masson/NIFPO

London has its finger on the trigger of Article 16, which would allow it to suspend as yet unspecified parts of the protocol, and says it is close to pulling it. Northern Irish unionist parties complain that an Irish Sea border undermines the region’s place in the UK and harms a landmark 1998 peace deal that ended the 30 years of sectarian strife known as the Troubles.

Sefcovic, in turn, says he has extracted unprecedented concessions from some reluctant members of the 27-nation bloc to ease the tensions. But his new proposals presented last month — including an offer to slash checks on animal and plant-based products by 80 per cent and halve the customs paperwork — have largely been dismissed as insufficient in London.

Not everyone is upset though. North-South trade has “absolutely boomed” since the protocol came into force, said Eddie Mullin, a director at EFL International, a haulage company. Irish data shows a 61 per cent rise in Northern Irish exports to the Republic from January to August compared with the same period last year.

A butcher’s shop in Ballymena
A butcher’s shop in Ballymena. Chilled meats that would otherwise be banned from entering Northern Ireland are allowed under the EU’s concessions © Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

George Fleming, who can see the Republic of Ireland from the office of his machinery export business in Londonderry, also known as Derry, said: “We are finding things perfectly good . . . at the minute Northern Ireland is in a bit of a utopia.”

“This family business is over 150 years old. We’ve come through the first world war, the second world war, the Troubles, BSE [mad cow disease], foot-and-mouth, currency crisis,” he said. “This is just a few politicians letting off a bit of steam . . . let them rattle away, we just get on with it.”

He exports muck-spreaders, bale handling, storage and other equipment to the US, Australia, New Zealand and EU, as well as to Great Britain.

Official statistics have yet to be published on trade this year between Northern Ireland and Great Britain but Fleming said it had become trickier, with some component suppliers in Britain thinking twice about sending goods to the region because of the extra hassle and red tape.

Trucks from Scotland disembark at Larne in County Antrim
Trucks from Scotland disembark at Larne in County Antrim. Unionist politicians complain that an Irish Sea border undermines the region’s place in the UK © Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Many of the challenges have been in the retail sector. The EU concessions cover allowing the free circulation of many foodstuffs across the Irish Sea, including chilled meats that would otherwise be banned from entering Northern Ireland since it remains within the bloc’s single market.

“The commission’s proposals put a lot of emphasis on resolving the sausage wars, helping retailers . . . they aren’t able to allay my fears,” said Alan McCulla, chief executive of the Anglo North Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation, who said “every last bit” of his produce goes to Great Britain.

For sensitive goods — for example, where the EU is concerned over biosecurity — there are potential workarounds, said Stephen Kelly, head of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, a lobby group.

Those include shipping goods via Dublin and then trucking them to Northern Ireland, enabling produce such as citrus fruit to be exported under EU sanitary checks to prevent black spot blight. “It’s no more expensive and it overcomes the trust problems with the UK,” Kelly said.

Many businesspeople fear the triggering of Article 16 will only create more instability. But Wick welcomed it if it could be used for political leverage “as a tool to solve problems”.

Still, the clamour from business is for clear, long-term rules.

As Noelle O’Connell, chief executive of European Movement Ireland, a European affairs non-profit organisation, put it: “Trade always finds the path of least Brexit resistance.”

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