Businesses give guarded welcome, but longer term answers wanted
Businesses and political parties have said they are concerned that short-term grace periods agreed to allow supermarkets and traders to prepare for future checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland are merely “kicking the can down the road”.
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said the deal meant “British sausages will continue to make their way to Belfast and Ballymena in the new year” after fears over the Northern Ireland protocol’s impact on supermarket goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.
Mr Gove told MPs the accord of the UK-EU joint committee, which applies even if a UK-EU trade deal is not reached, would allow “unfettered access” for businesses here to access the market in GB.
He confirmed that there would be a three-month “grace period” for supermarkets “in order to make sure that they are ready for any health export certificate requirements”.
A six-month grace period will apply to chilled meats and there will then be a trusted trader service.
Mr Gove said the accord would avoid damaging tariffs that could have hiked supermarket prices, and said there would be no additional red tape applied on businesses in NI.
EU rules mean that chilled meat products cannot be shipped into its market by third countries, affecting shipments from GB into NI, which will be treated as part of the EU single market after the transition period ends in 21 days. A report by RTE said NI supermarkets will then have to source such products locally or from the Republic.
Mr Gove told MPs: “I can’t think of any better place for goods in NI supermarkets to be sourced than from NI... when it comes to pork products, there’s nothing better than an Ulster fry.”
The DUP said it remained opposed to the protocol but welcomed progress, including the waiver of paperwork for NI firms.
“We remain concerned by those elements of this ‘in principle agreement’ that are characterised by grace periods and time-limited derogations, and in particular we will want to continue to lobby the Government to ensure that at the end of the six-month period NI will not be required to switch suppliers away from GB for chilled meats.”
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the deal “will create breathing space for retailers and traders”, but added: “It is now incumbent on the British Government to engage directly with businesses in order to make them aware of exactly what the new arrangements will be and what they will be required to do and, crucially, what support will available for them.”
Mr Gove told MPs that their checks would be observed by “no more than two dozen EU officials working alongside UK officials, but UK officials will be lead officials”.
And he said the UK had resisted demands from the EU for a permanent presence in NI, claiming they “wanted to mount a land grab as it were and have a part of NI that was forever Brussels”.
Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry said the agreement in principle was helpful “but I am conscious many of the derogations are rather time-limited, and there is not yet the long-term certainty on many challenges facing local companies”.
Roger Pollen of the Federation of Small Businesses, said he feared the can “may simply have been kicked down the road”.
“The longer term future of the Trader Support Service also remains unclear, so the minister’s commitment to publish further clarification is welcome — but it must be delivered as a matter of urgency and must give answers in sufficient time for adjustments to be made, rather than just delaying the cliff-edge.”