I was in the privileged position of being one of several business leaders that was asked to meet with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove and Vice-President of the European Union, Maros Sefcovic in a short but important meeting on the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol.
At that meeting I had the chance to explain the challenges for the retail sector and consumers in Northern Ireland. The transition period was a misnomer as it was simply a protracted negotiation period with some of the new regulations only coming in a few hours prior to the end of the transition period. It is therefore a testament to the hard work of those in the retail and logistics industry that out of 40 to 50,000 products in the average supermarket, only a few hundred were unavailable given the new trading conditions and the constraints of the pandemic.
But April 1 presents a huge challenge to retailers and also households in Northern Ireland. The end of the grace period on parcels and EHCs, plus customs requirements, will put unprecedented pressure on our supply chains. To countermand these pressures we need four things.
Stability: To allow business to adapt to the changes and challenges of the protocol we need immediate short-term stability. That means an extension to the grace periods to allow business to continue to adapt.
Certainty: A long-term workable solution that is done with business, not to business. We need the EU and the UKG to work with our technical experts to design a system that works for business and the people of Northern Ireland.
Simplicity: Using things like digitisation and an auditable and certified supply chain which could deliver a much simpler Trusted Trader agreement, and a veterinary agreement to remove frictions. This needs to be proportionate to the low level of risk of UK retail goods coming into Northern Ireland going on to the Single Market due to the dead-end-host principle. That means once it is in Northern Ireland, it stays there.
And there is already a key decision that enables mitigations built on trust. On Monday the EU agreed to allow data to continue to flow freely to the UK after concluding that the British had ensured an adequate level of protection for personal information. This is a welcome move by the EU based on good work by UKG to ensure protection was proven. We now need the same moves from the EU and the same delivery of proof through certified auditable supply chains to reduce friction for goods going to Northern Ireland.
Affordability: As both the EU and UK have said in recent weeks, this all must be done with the least disruption to communities in Northern Ireland. That means the costs of new processes must be kept to a minimum to allow us to continue to give NI households the choice and affordability they need.
The Northern Ireland business community did not want the NI Protocol. We had always asked for complete unfettered access to both the GB and EU markets.
In fact, in this very paper the day after the Prime Minister announced the Northern Ireland Protocol, I am quoted as saying that the PM had not listened to NI business nor NI communities. But it is the law now and the business community has proved time and time again that it is willing to put in the hard graft to make it work. We now need the EU and the UK to show that they have the political will to live up to their side of the bargain.