‘I hope they take a light touch’ – Northern Ireland businesses hopeful about new Brexit deal

Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce representative sees Windsor Framework as ‘an important step’ in securing stability and certainty

For businessman Dermot Johnson, the devil in the new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland is not so much in the detail but in how the European Union and UK will implement the arrangements.

The Lisburn food and consumer products distributor’s trade crosses a number of borders. He imports products from Britain and elsewhere to sell them on to businesses in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The owner of Johnson Brothers has been reading the text of the Windsor Framework – the amending EU-UK agreement to the Northern Ireland protocol that is designed to make post-Brexit trade smoother for Northern Ireland’s businesses – since it was published on Monday.

“We don’t really have enough detail on how they are going to implement it but by the cuddly nature of what they are saying, it should be okay,” he said.


The view is shared by Stuart Anderson, head of public affairs at the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry – which represents about 1,000 firms, who said that while technical and political issues remain to resolved there is “real potential for Northern Ireland to do well” economically under the framework.

“Certainly from an American investment point of view, I’m hearing a lot of talk about potential to market Northern Ireland as a place to trade in and a place to invest in,” he said, adding that the North’s business community is now talking about the future and how it could build on connections made during the Brexit period.

“Doors have been opened, and we’ve got to keep them open,” he said.

He said that while there were still issues – “If you’re a large manufacturer here and you’ve benefited from dual market access and that being preserved is your win, the red lane/green lane still isn’t going to work for you” – there were “hugely positive” steps, including around the availability of food, food safety and parcels.

In the dairy and beef industry, he said “they are pleased today, I’ve spoken to a few of them, that their barrier-free access to the single market has been preserved”.

Back in Lisburn, Johnson says he will have goods coming from Britain passing through green lanes (no checks for Northern Ireland-destined goods) and red lanes (checks for EU-bound goods) at Northern Ireland’s ports. About 10 per cent of his business is selling products in the Republic.

He expects the new arrangements will make life easier as they remove the requirement to file paperwork around customs procedures and food materials for suppliers in Britain who were turned off selling to Northern Ireland by the volumes of red tape linked to the protocol.

“If we are getting loads in from companies that we don’t sell down South, that will be dead easy. That will take a lot of the work away,” he said.

Complications arise where he imports products and doesn’t know yet where he will sell them; much of it may be sold in Northern Ireland but some may be sold to customers in the Republic. “As you bring it in, you don’t know where it is going.”

One such product is a high-quality jam he imports from Essex. If the jam was sold and consumed in Northern Ireland only, he would no longer have to submit customs paperwork for its journey across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland. But he sells some of the jam on to the Republic.

“It will make life easier for me but the devil is still in how they are going to treat it, load by load, or will they consider Johnson Brothers a red company because we sell in the South,” he said.

He is hopeful the authorities will take a pragmatic approach, echoing a call from the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, a group representing 14 industry bodies headed by Anderson, for the UK and EU to “continue with a constructive, solutions-focused approach as businesses adjust”.

“I hope they take a light touch but we will see,” Johnson said.

On a visit to Northern Ireland on Tuesday, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak said the agreement would make the North “the world’s most exciting economic zone”.

Anderson said some firms are still considering the detail of the deal from their individual perspectives, but the working group sees it as “an important step in securing the stability and certainty businesses have been seeking”.

“What we were looking for was a careful balance between struck between protecting the Northern Ireland consumer and protecting dual market access and our exporters and, broadly speaking, we seem to be in that ballpark,” he said.

“I’m still getting feedback from members, the only feedback I’ve got so far is positive but actually it’s positive because they say we’ve got a framework, the EU and UK have agreed it, now we can get on with thinking about investment, provided we get political buy-in.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times