It’s not every day you hear your business name-checked in the House of Commons.
Last month SDLP leader Colum Eastwood challenged Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis on "all the talk of sausages and the protocol" and what the UK government was doing to promote the benefits of the Northern Ireland protocol for local producers. "Can he tell the people of Derry what exactly he and Lord Frost think is wrong with Doherty's sausages?" Eastwood asked.
Though Lewis duly stressed his fondness for Northern Ireland’s “quality” sausages, he emphasised the protocol was “causing real disruption and real problems for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland”.
Listening in Derry, James Doherty of the aforementioned firm, Doherty's Meats, described it as "surreal" and a "nice plug... it was a surprise for a Wednesday afternoon but you'll take publicity where we can get it".
Yet of the much-hyped “sausage wars”, he says: “we see it as being blown out of proportion”. He says their experience of the first six months of the protocol has been not one of disadvantage, but opportunity.
"It's frustrating because we can see the potential and the benefits that exist. We do have access to these markets now post-Brexit and that makes Northern Ireland an attractive place for businesses to invest."
In the six months since the protocol came into operation, sausages have come to be used by its opponents as a symbol of all that is wrong with it. The protocol avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.
That customers in Northern Ireland will not be able to buy sausages – or other chilled processed meat products – made in Britain, they say, demonstrates not just the economic difficulties caused by the protocol but also undermines its place in the union by treating its companies and consumers differently from those elsewhere in the UK.
Extended grace period
Last week's temporary truce kicked the can down the road as the EU and UK agreed to extend the grace period around the importation of such products for another three months. With other grace periods covering thousands of food products also due to come to an end in October, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, Aodhán Connolly, spoke of the "real frustration" in the business community.
“We need both sides to live up to their commitments and find a pragmatic solution to ensure that NI consumers continue to get access to both the choice and affordability in the food they need and, yet again, the clock is ticking down.”
Writing in this newspaper on Saturday, Lewis and the UK’s Brexit minister, Lord David Frost, argued that a “seriously unbalanced situation” was developing in the way the protocol was operating and the way forward was to “find a new balance of arrangements, adapted to the practical reality”.
At Doherty's Meats, that practical reality has been positive. Based in Derry, their "heartland" is in the northwest, but their distribution network covers all of Northern Ireland and Co Donegal, with supermarkets such as Sainsbury's, Tesco, Spar and SuperValu their main customers.
Since Brexit, they have expanded; two supermarkets have taken extra product lines, and they are in talks with another major UK supermarket.
“Some of the supermarkets saw an option there for ourselves to supply them, probably because of the shortages in terms of what they weren’t able to bring across from GB,” says Doherty.
“It’s been really good, it’s helped build our brand, and being locally based here in Derry it’s allowed us to try to build our volumes.”
All of their meat is local – from both sides of the Border. This meant his business was “ideally placed” to benefit from the protocol, as he readily acknowledges.
Challenges and opportunities
At Finnebrogue Artisan in Downpatrick, Co Down, the firm's chief strategy officer, Jago Pearson, says Brexit has "presented us with some challenges and opportunities, challenges which we have overcome and opportunities which we are largely yet to seize".
The company makes sausages, bacon and burgers and new, plant-based products and supplies every major UK supermarket. “Brexit has not significantly hindered that process,” says Pearson.
Challenges were around bringing raw materials from Britain and potential opportunities include new trade deals to reduce the cost of food for some consumers.
“We’re certainly exploring opportunities every day on the export side of things, including to the European continent, and we’re very positive about the outlook.”
Whether the past six months has brought opportunities or challenges – or a mixture of the two – is very much dependent on the nature of the business and where its supply chains come from, says Connolly.
Businesses have been reorientating and adapting; figures from the Central Statistics Office showed exports from Northern Ireland to the Republic increased by 60 per cent to more than €1 billion over January to April, and exports from the south to the North rose by 40 per cent, while exports from Britain to the Republic fell by 39 per cent.
“Retailers are still trying to work through a new way of trading, not only GB to NI but EU to GB, and we still haven’t seen the final iteration of what the new normal will be,” says Connolly.
“Certainty and stability is what we need,” he emphasises. “We’re still trying to find that new normal and how we make the best of it.”