Northern Ireland: ‘Brexit was thrust upon us. We are piggy in the middle’

Mark Brown’s Belfast deli is at the coalface of Brexit supply issues. He hopes for progress

Mark Brown of Arcadia deli on the Lisburn Road: ‘I’m hoping politicians can do their job and be a bit more pragmatic.’

Mark Brown of Arcadia deli on the Lisburn Road: ‘I’m hoping politicians can do their job and be a bit more pragmatic.’

 

“In the old days you just picked up the phone or emailed and it came,” says Mark Brown of supplies from Britain for his 90-year-old specialist delicatessen, Arcadia, on Belfast’s fashionable Lisburn Road.

“There was no hassle. Now, everything seems to take longer and you don’t even know if you are going to get it.”

Checks, inspections and extra paperwork on the Irish Sea border – erected as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol to avoid a land border in Ireland after Brexit – have wreaked havoc with his generally small artisan suppliers.

“Initially, we couldn’t get a lot of cheese from Great Britain,” he says. “We were bringing in a lot of European, English and Scottish cheese. Getting Stilton was a big issue at one stage – I ended up having to buy it through Sweden for a time.”

Brown says he has lost seven or eight suppliers in Britain as a result of Brexit and the ensuing complications in sending fresh food products across the Irish Sea into the North.

“What I found is there are three different types of suppliers. There is the one who knows what they are doing and can send over orders no problem,” he says.

“But there can still be delays and, if it is fresh food, it can end up being useless and needs to be sent back.

“The second lot are ones who don’t really know what they are doing and we end up having to make declarations on the deliveries three or four months down the line: the weight of the box, the size of the box, the contents, the ingredients.

Sympathy for suppliers

“By that stage it is sold, and it is very difficult to sort out, and we don’t know until months down the line that that is going to happen.

“The third type of supplier has just said we are not supplying Northern Ireland now.”

Brown, who took over the family-owned deli which specialises in “stuff you don’t get in the supermarkets” 14 years ago, is not short of sympathy with the British suppliers, despite the problems it is causing him.

“I’d be the same,” he says. “I wouldn’t bother going through all the stuff they have to do just to send over £400 or £500 worth of product. You would just turn around and say ‘you know what, forget about Northern Ireland’.”

While he has been able to source alternative products in the Republic, he insists “variety is the spice of life” and the narrowing of choice has upset some customers.

“We used to get a lovely naan bread. There are only three ingredients in it, it is not like supermarket naan bread. We can’t get that anymore,” he says.

“There is Godminster Heart, which is a type of cheddar. We were importing that direct from England – we put them on top of our wedding cheese cakes. We can’t get that anymore.

“There are some very specialist cheeses we can’t get anymore, that we were buying from a company in Scotland. A whole patchwork of stuff. No one is going to starve, but these are the products that set us apart from supermarkets. We rely on products that are a bit more exclusive.”

Time-consuming paperwork and chasing deliveries as well as a lack of confidence that orders will even reach him have been the main problems.

Price uncertainty

“Customers come in and ask me ‘can we get such and such’, and I have to say, ‘to be quite honest, I don’t know’,” he says. “The other thing is price . . . We are trying to sort out Christmas right now, but we have no clue on availability or what the prices will be.”

Where he would normally order £1,000 worth of products from some suppliers in Britain, they are now insisting on minimum orders of £2,000 to ship to the North.

“It is a fact of life at the moment that there are certain things we can’t get. We’re having to move with the punches.”

While tuned into the radio in the shop to hear European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic outline proposed reforms of the protocol on Wednesday evening, Brown’s mood suddenly lifts.

They “are all very positive”, he says.

“There is still paperwork to do, but it doesn’t sound like the nightmarish situation I feared. The devil is still in the detail and we don’t know what way the negotiations are going to go yet.

“But I think this would help me out. Where firms said before they weren’t going to get involved [in supplying Northern Ireland], they might take another look at it now. The small, independent producers, they might see it is worth their while now.

“I thought the EU and Britain were going to go head to head, but it looks like there is a bit of movement on both sides now. Let’s hope.”

Asked what he hopes will come from the EU proposals, he doesn’t hesitate.

“I’m hoping politicians can do their job,” he says. “I’m hoping they will be a bit more pragmatic, and come to some sort of agreement.

“In Northern Ireland, we didn’t vote for Brexit, it was thrust upon us. I just feel like we are piggy in the middle and it is not particularly fair that we are having to scoop up all the issues.”