Politicians ‘need to work together’ to calm North ports situation

Objective of protocol is to ensure North’s access to EU and UK markets, Minister for Agriculture says

The Minister said “the seamless arrangements that characterised our trading relationship with the UK are a thing of the past”. File photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

The Minister said “the seamless arrangements that characterised our trading relationship with the UK are a thing of the past”. File photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

 

Politicians on both sides of the border should understand that the objective of the Northern Ireland protocol is to ensure access for the North to the European Union market as well as the UK, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has said.

The Minister said “we need to work together to calm the situation at ports” in the North, following safety concerns for customs officials over alleged intimidation, and to stress the opportunities for business in Northern Ireland.

Speaking at a meeting of the Oireachtas Agriculture and Marine Committee he said “it’s an emerging situation and the first priority is in relation to the safety of staff”. Mr McConalogue said “the type of threats we’ve seen are to be condemned by all”.

But he said there were still “full documentary checks” in place. “It’s important that we work together to calm the situation at ports in Northern Ireland and to recognise that the objective of the North-South protocol is for access for Northern Ireland to the EU market as well as access to the UK market and remaining part of the UK customs union.”

The Minister was addressing the committee on the impact of Brexit on the agriculture sector. Mr McConalogue said if a deal had not been agreed “Ireland would have faced a combined impact of between €1.37 billion and €1.55 billion on our agri-food exports to the UK, and between €715 million and €970 million on our agri-food imports”.

The beef sector would have faced a punitive 72 per cent tariff on beef exports at a cost of €1 billion a year.

But he added that even with a deal that avoided the imposition of tariffs on trade, “the seamless arrangements that characterised our trading relationship with the UK are a thing of the past”.

Documentation obligations

Increased documentation obligations will be a significant challenge, including UK import requirements from April 1st, “which may require issuing an additional 4,000-6,000 export certificates per week”.

The committee was also told that staffing and IT systems put in place at Dublin and Rosslare ports and Dublin Airport are capable of dealing with trade if it had remained the same as 2019 and 2020.

Hazel Sheridan, head of the department’s import control operations division, said “there was no way of testing what this was going to look like in reality” because there was no way of asking businesses to complete customs and phytosanitary formalities or assessing their understanding of what was needed on certificates ahead of January 1st.

She said “unfortunately there’s no substitute for actually doing the business itself and that’s the phase we’re in now”, which was complex and involved “a lot of learning” for business, the department and agencies.

She stressed however that “we have lots of spare capacity at the moment and are ready to go when that increase in business happens”.

Agri-food sector

Mr McConalogue said the Irish agri-food sector has been particularly hit because of the highly integrated nature of supply chains between ourselves and our closest neighbour.

Milk products are most affected because of country of origin rules. The North remains in the UK customs union and under the regulations, milk from the North processed in the Republic will not be considered as “inputs of EU origin” under European Union free trade agreements with third countries.

The Minister said it was not an issue of many of the main markets outside the EU or within the EU and UK, but “it is certainly an issue for some third countries” and it will affect exports to some third countries including Canada, Japan and Korea.

Mr McConalogue said he was “very committed to resolving the issue in time but we will have to look at renegotiation of third-country agreements for that issue to be resolved”.

Assistant secretary general Paul Savage told Senator Paul Gavan (Sinn Féin) that renegotiating all existing free trade agreements would be “very difficult” to do and raised the risk of other issues being highlighted which would “open a hornets’ nest”.

But he said there was a possibility that the rules-of-origin issue could be addressed in ongoing negotiations between Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic around the implementation of the EU-UK trade deal and the rules of origin.