NI food exporters go through Republic to avoid British ‘land bridge’

New routes to mainland Europe from Dublin, Rosslare and Cork seen as more reliable

Fisherfolk in Kilkeel, Co Down, have had to fight inclement weather on the seas for weeks, along with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. Unlike their counterparts in Britain, however, they are not being buffeted by the consequences of Brexit.

“For the fishermen on the quayside, their main issue has been the weather. If it blows an easterly gale, the guys can’t get to sea. Then, it’s Covid, which has had a significant impact on seafood markets around the world,” says Alan McCulla, who leads local collective SeaSource.

“Then, in third place, comes Brexit,” he goes on, adding that he booked space on ferries leaving Rosslare for Dunkirk in December, thus avoiding some of the problems faced by exporters who have used the “land bridge” to the Continent, in other words routed through Britain.

"The traditional route has been to send it across from Belfast or Larne to Cairnryan, then down to Dover and across to France, " McCulla says. Now, his langoustines and oysters travel through the Republic, avoiding checks, delays and paperwork.

“We have been on a weekly basis using the route from Rosslare through to Dunkirk, and it’s proven to be good. Our situation is very cost effective.” McCulla adds that exporters depending on refrigerated containers “are scared of the land bridge”.

Fridge people

According to the haulage industry, many Northern Irish businesses are following SeaSource's lead. They are taking advantage of extra routes to mainland Europe from Dublin, Rosslare and Cork and avoiding passing through Britain.

Gary Lyons, a haulier who supplies both to Britain and the Continent, says clients who ship chilled goods to Europe are wary of delays at Dover.

“Beef, offal and dairy [producers] will not go through the land bridge,” he says. “Fridge people don’t want it to go out through the mainland because they’re scared.”

Another source in the haulage industry who specialises in chilled goods transportation said: “We’ve reacted to our customers’ demands that all our EU beef, lamb and other products that we export to the EU are shipped from Rosslare or Dublin directly to France.”

Customers have expressed a preference to go via the Republic into Europe “to avoid teething issues, documentation at Holyhead and transits in Calais”, he adds.

Northern Ireland’s access to European markets is secure because it remains part of the EU’s single market for goods.

The route via the Republic makes sense because of "journey reliability" and the lack of administration, Seamus Leheny, policy manager for Logistics UK in Northern Ireland says.

While several major Northern meat companies contacted for this article said they had not changed their trading routes, Seamus Leheny thinks European customers are often asking for chilled Northern Irish goods to be shipped via the Republic.

This is not a perfect solution, Leheny says. It has “capacity issues”, transporting loads can cost €300-€400 more and deliveries can arrive four to six hours later than they did previously via the land bridge.

But customers are "happy to pay more" to avoid the "Dover-Calais question marks", he says.

Lorries not full

Separately, Northern Irish hauliers have struggled to fill their lorries on the way back from Britain.

In a recent survey of almost 100 businesses moving goods between Britain and Northern Ireland in January, Leheny found that almost 57 per cent had lower revenues and 63 per cent had experienced disrupted back-haul volumes, or loads returning to the sender. "It's having a real impact on business," Leheny says.

Another Northern Irish haulier who does not wish to be named says he is struggling to fill backloads. “We’ve had BSE, foot-and-mouth and the financial crisis, but this is the worst time we’ve had because there doesn’t seem to be a way out of it.”

He would like smoother political leadership. “There’s always the green and orange issues that come into play and it’s not helping at all,” he says. “We should all help each other out.”

Last week Logistics UK members asked MPs in Westminster for an extension to the grace period allowing a more lax application of EU rules on trade from Northern Ireland to Britain.

Lyons says his counterparts in Britain "weren't as well versed" as Northern Irish businesses. "We got adverts for the Trader Support Scheme rammed down our throats but the same didn't happen in the UK."

But he believes challenges for supply chains are “not insurmountable”, rejecting DUP calls for the Northern Ireland protocol to be scrapped.