Businesses have urged the UK and EU to bring them into talks on the NI Protocol as a manufacturing boss warned new British proposals created “confusion and uncertainty”.
The protocol, which keeps NI within the EU’s single market for goods, has meant checks on products travelling from Great Britain to NI, though grace periods have delayed full implementation.
Grocer M&S has said it already expects it will not be able to stock all items in its Christmas range in NI stores. A grace period covering products of animal origin expires in October.
The UK demanded “significant” changes to the protocol but held back from tearing up parts of the deal, though Brexit minister Lord Frost claimed the conditions allowing him to do so had been met.
Government proposals include an “evidence-based and targeted approach” to goods at risk of entering the single market, but products destined just for NI would be allowed to circulate “near-freely”.
Stephen Kelly, chief executive of trade group Manufacturing NI, said the statement from Lord Frost “creates confusion and uncertainty for business, its supply chain and customers”.
“It will also likely create conflict with the EU. None of that is good for business and those who create and sustain jobs,” he said.
“Equally, the EU needs to go further to ensure the UK’s market works for business and consumers in NI, and that there is a concerted effort across the EU to ensure our goods do freely circulate.
“Both parties owe it to the people in NI to skip the drama and get on with dialogue and decision making.”
He said businesses had been offering to join protocol talks since October 2019 and that it was now clear that the “real life” experience of traders — some of whom had been doing very well under the protocol — had to be understood.
“Making adjustments is common in business and in life, no one loses face if the focus is on agreeing to work together,” he continued.
“Working with business will bring real-life experience and ideas. Including business will improve trust and the relationship. We have been offering this since October 2019, so let’s get on with it.”
Angela McGowan, CBI Northern Ireland director, said businesses were frustrated that the protocol continued to dominate headlines after months of talks “with no end in sight”.
She said: “Firms are determined to make it work, and to see it bring much needed prosperity to Northern Ireland. It’s time for the EU and the UK to bring business into the discussions to break the deadlock.”
She said the extension of a grace period allowing chilled meat preparations to flow into NI from GB were giving time to agree the lasting solutions of a veterinary agreement and trusted trader arrangements for the movement of goods.
“These solutions need to be agreed urgently to unlock investment and give Northern Ireland’s businesses and households the certainty they need and deserve.”
Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said both sides needed to agree to any changes to the protocol or else there would not be the “certainty and stability” needed by retailers and consumers.
Retailers needed to know by August what arrangements will apply when the grace period runs out in October, he said.