Irish food producers gloomy about potentially ‘devastating’ Brexit

‘I don’t think people appreciate what is coming,’ Dublin food conference hears

Mella Frewen: “Everyone in Brussels is getting very nervous and there is a huge amount of Brexit fatigue.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Mella Frewen: “Everyone in Brussels is getting very nervous and there is a huge amount of Brexit fatigue.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

If the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a trade deal in place it could have a “devastating” impact on the Irish food industry, a gathering of thousands of food and drink producers in Dublin has heard.

The atmosphere at the National Food and Drink Conference and Exhibition in the Citywest Convention Centre was gloomy as 3,000 food industry professionals tried to work out what Brexit’s impact would be on an industry worth €10 billion to the Irish economy.

Much talk was on how best to find and consolidate other markets but there was a broad recognition of the UK’s significance as it accounted for 42 per cent of all food exports from the State.

Declan Billington, the chairman of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, told delegates there were still four of five outcomes that could happen. He said “the worst-case scenario is no deal”, which would mean “no solutions can be found for Ireland”.

He noted that Northern Ireland was reliant on exports in a way that “London does not comprehend” and said a failure to agree trade terms could “destroy the rural economy in the towns and villages of Northern Ireland”.

He said successive British governments had “focused on importing and not exporting food” and the UK “has singularly failed for decades to invest in import markets”.

He said a hard Brexit cold be “devastating to the structure and fabric of our society as a whole. That is what happens if we get it wrong”.

‘Feel the pain’

Vincent Carton of Manor Farm, Ireland’s largest chicken processor, painted a bleak picture of a post-Brexit world, highlighting the collapse in the value of sterling as a particular challenge to Irish food producers. “When sterling hits 94p against the euro I think people are going to feel the pain. Fluctuations of that nature are not something a lot of companies can handle.

“What we have now is a phoney war, and I don’t think people really appreciate what is coming down the tracks,” Mr Carton added.

Vincent Carton of Manor Farm: “When sterling hits 94p against the euro I think people are going to feel the pain.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Vincent Carton of Manor Farm: “When sterling hits 94p against the euro I think people are going to feel the pain.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Referring to the ongoing uncertainty surrounding severance talks, he said although the British negotiating team was starting to realise the consequences of a hard Brexit, “we could still hit a cliff in 2019”.

Mella Frewen, director general of the Brussels-based Food Drink Europe, the lobby group that represents the industry across the EU, said: “All we have is uncertainty.”

“We don’t know what is going to happen, and if you don’t know what is going to happen it is very difficult to be prepared,” she said. “Everyone in Brussels is getting very nervous and there is a huge amount of Brexit fatigue.”

The EU was “negotiating with people who don’t seem to have done any of their homework”, she added.

Alison Cowzer, the owner of East Coast Bakehouse and a Dragons’ Den investor, was critical of the “ambiguity coming at a political level from the UK”. She said business people in Ireland “have been hoping for a long time that the UK government would get sense, and I think it is only gradually dawning on people that it is not going to get sense”.

She said her company had been looking to do “a lot more business in the UK” but that had been put in doubt, so the company was looking for other markets. “That should have been happening anyway. I think Irish food in history is very dynamic and very nimble and if we show that nimbleness now we will get through this.”