UK and EU must respect our communities’ everyday life

To complicate things further, Northern Ireland was to have a different relationship with the EU than Great Britain, under the separate agreement known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which requires the application of EU regulatory and customs rules. FSB has described the new trading environment as presenting ‘the best of times and the worst of times’, subject to the nature of specific sectors.

Friday, 4th June 2021, 1:18 pm

To complicate things further, Northern Ireland was to have a different relationship with the EU than Great Britain, under the separate agreement known as the Northern Ireland Protocol which requires the application of EU regulatory and customs rules. FSB has described the new trading environment as presenting ‘the best of times and the worst of times’, subject to the nature of specific sectors.

For businesses that see the upside, the ability to continue to have barrier-free trade with the rest of the island of Ireland and EU means the Protocol provides welcome protection against some of the difficulties that GB-based businesses are experiencing.

For those facing challenges, they see new bureaucracy, additional costs, or restrictions placed on goods that they bring in from Great Britain, which potentially threatens the sustainability of their business.

Earlier this year I summarised the main issues of concern as being ‘the 5 Ps’ - Pets, Parcels, Potatoes and Potted Plants – everyday items whose movement in Northern Ireland was suddenly no longer going to be unfettered because of new customs and regulatory requirements. In some of these areas temporary easements have been applied, following action taken by the UK Government without the agreement of the EU. This included the extension of the so-called ‘grace periods’ that postponed full implementation of the Protocol, avoiding negative implications for the movement of parcels and food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Currently, the general public aren’t feeling the full effects of the Protocol because of these temporary easements. The grace periods, which the UK government extended unilaterally, are due to conclude by the autumn and there is not yet agreement about what will replace them.

In our engagement earlier this week with Lord Frost, the UK Minister with responsibility for Brexit, there was not a great deal of positivity regarding agreement being found soon on the key issues. The challenge this presents is that businesses are having to take decisions now about what they will do in a few months time, and the lack of certainty may lead to a return of the supply issues we witnessed earlier this year.

The UK-EU Joint Committee - the body established to oversee the implementation of the Protocol - is due to meet on Wednesday where Lord Frost will meet with his EU counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič. The local business community, through the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, has been engaging extensively with all interested parties since the new trading arrangements came into effect, so all parties are well-versed on where the challenges lie. The listening ear has been welcome, but businesses are now becoming increasingly impatient and want to see action. This will require both the UK and EU to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones. Northern Ireland’s ports cannot be treated as if they are an EU external frontier. Both sides need to work together to alleviate any concerns that may exist about any potential threat to the EU single market, however, many business owners feel that the current way that the Protocol is being implemented is using a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’ when much more nuanced, clever methods are available to ensure regulatory and customs compliance.

With Northern Ireland being a small business led economy, and the burden of additional bureaucracy disproportionality falling on smaller firms with less capacity and resource, the consequences of failing to get this right could be deeply damaging for employment and wider society.

FSB is calling on both the UK and EU to re-double their efforts and deliver an outcome that lives up to their commitments enshrined in the Protocol itself - that it should “impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities”.

Roger Pollen is Head of FSB in NI