NI farmers and retailers doubt political will exists to fix protocol issues

‘We feel we are not getting listened to’ by politicians, says farming union leader

Traffic on the Irish Border. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Traffic on the Irish Border. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

 

Farming and retail business leaders in Northern Ireland have questioned whether the political will exists to solve the issues posed by the Northern Ireland protocol.

In some instances there are “perfectly legitimate solutions”, said the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, Victor Chestnutt, but there has been “unwillingness” by the European Union and the UK to engage.

“The most frustrating thing for business across Northern Ireland is we can see the solutions, we just don’t see the political will to deliver them,” said Aodhán Connolly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium.

The two men gave evidence on Thursday to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which was taking stock on the progress of the implementation of the protocol since it came into effect in January.

The Northern Ireland protocol avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit by placing the customs and regulatory border between the EU and the UK in the Irish Sea, and is opposed by unionists.

Northern Irish businesses are facing a “perfect storm” in October, said Mr Connolly when export health certificates for all products of animal origin, EU to Britain checks and the end of the chilled meats grace period come into force.

Calling for long-term solutions, he said Northern Irish businesses “need movement from both the EU and the UK” and for both “to live up” to commitments that the protocol would “be implemented with the least disruption”.

“That means either trusted trader [status], or a veterinary agreement by the first of October,” the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium official told the all-party Westminster committee.

Nothing sorted

Outlining the issues faced by farmers, Mr Chestnutt said little had changed in the six months since he last spoke with MPs, saying “bull sales, nothing sorted, sheep stuck in Scotland, still in Scotland”.

Some elements of the protocol are working for farmers, but “it needs a real revamp, it needs an architect to look at it, it needs major renovations, but we need to be careful not to upset the little bits of it that are working”.

The extension of the grace period on the importation of chilled meats from Britain at the end of June was, he said, a “red herring. We’re an export region; we can make all the sausages we need in Northern Ireland.”

“Some sort of a veterinary agreement with the EU would help us, but we don’t seem to be getting that,” he said, adding that they were getting opportunities to speak to politicians “ but we feel we are not getting listened to”.

Meanwhile, Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said more than half of all manufacturers in the North were now saying that the North should grasp the opportunities offered by the protocol, both in the UK and across the EU.

Sarah Hards of Larne-based logistics firm AM Nexday said Northern Irish truckers were carrying more freight to Britain than they were bringing back, leaving “maybe a third of trailers coming back empty”.

Many retailers had stopped sourcing fresh goods from Britain, and were now sourcing them on the island of Ireland,” she told told the House of Commons Scrutiny Committee.