Aodhan Connolly: Northern Ireland economy is no one's experiment
The Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC) have delivered their final report with what they see are solutions to the Irish border problem for Brexit.
Disappointingly, nothing has substantially changed from the interim report published two weeks ago by the group of Conservative MPs.
NI business has tests for what we need to survive Brexit.
Any solution must build on the backstop, not take away from it. It must have no new rules-of-origin complications and must enable free movement of goods without new VAT implications.
It must deal with the Common Travel Area convention and must not have any sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on either side of the border or infrastructure. There must not be an added burden of costs and, of course, it must be acceptable to the EU as well as to the UK.
The AAC proposals state that current technology and best practice can solve the border problem, yet nowhere else in the world today does technology lead to frictionless trade. They use the example of Norway-Sweden, but that border still has infrastructure and there is still an average delay of 10 minutes for the 1,300 lorries crossing the border posts every day.
The AAC promotes checks away from the border but this goes against the December 2017 commitment by the UK and EU to avoid a hard border and associated checks. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has said it would have to introduce charges for checks. Current charges for checks by DAERA are £200 - and if we would have such charges here, it would make NI businesses less competitive and, in some cases, unviable.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
DAERA estimates it would need to issue 10,000 times the number of health certificates and 100 times the number of checks that it does now. One retailer estimated that it would need 35 full-time DAERA staff to deal with the amount of checks needed at its distribution centre. This is a cost that will have to be absorbed by business and by the NI consumer.
Similarly, the proposals for special economic zones or enhanced economic zones are totally unacceptable for Northern Ireland, as instead of one border they would lead to six or more borders for these zones. That would be unacceptable not just for business but for the border communities who would live in these proposed zones.
The AAC is under the impression that smuggling goods to Northern Ireland to get into the UK does not make economic sense due to the extra travel. That shows a fundamental lack of understanding of criminality.
NI already has some of the highest levels of smuggling in Europe because of price differentials centred on products such as cigarettes, alcohol, fuel and even washing powder. The profit on a lorry-load of beef smuggled across the border is around £150,000 per load. This is more than enough to offset travel costs.
It also aims to keep smuggling to "an acceptable level". For us, there is no acceptable level of smuggling across the Irish border. It makes legitimate traders less competitive and it has societal impacts. This would not be acceptable in Kent so it is not acceptable in Northern Ireland.
Our tests for any alternative arrangements remain the same - the overarching principle is that the SMEs in our supply chain must be able to trade under these arrangements as they can today or under the backstop.
These proposals do not meet our tests and they have not been proven to work anywhere else. After 20 years of hard-won progress, our economy cannot be anyone's experiment.
- Aodhan Connolly is the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium and has recently been appointed to the Department for Exiting the EU's Alternative Arrangements Business Advisory Panel