Specific milestones need to be set towards ending grace periods around implementation of the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, say representatives of the local business sector.
Without firm dates attached to specific actions, the concern is progress on putting in place the systems required for certification of agri-food trade from GB to NI could drag on indefinitely.
Earlier this month, the UK government unilaterally extended Brexit grace periods due to expire at the end of March and June, to October 1 for agri-food movements and November 1 for parcels.
EU officials responded with legal action, declaring the extensions a breach of the NI Protocol and international law.
However, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has indicated flexibility could be extended by the EU if the UK fulfils an obligation agreed back in December to provide a roadmap outlining steps and milestones for implementation of the Protocol. A timeframe for completion of border posts at Larne and Belfast ports and the digitisation of customs declarations should be included in the roadmap, he said.
In a statement announcing the grace period extension, NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said the current arrangements for agri-food movements would continue until October 1, and "certification requirements will then be introduced in phases alongside the roll out of the Digital Assistance Scheme."
However, the vagueness around the roll out was addressed by Northern Ireland Retail Consortium Director Aodhán Connolly during a BRC Trade Podcast, Things are getting messy with the EU! aired on March 24.
Connolly welcomed the longer grace periods as vital to maintaining choice and affordability for NI households, while acknowledging a bilateral approach would have been preferable for the extension.
“Politics is getting in the way of the technical stuff,” he said. “Our big push now is the milestones. Don’t just use this to kick the can down the road, we need to find out how this is going to translate into a long-term workable solution that is designed with business.”
Reaffirming commitment to work with all parts of government on solutions, Connolly stressed the need for advance warning of milestones so retailers can accordingly adapt their supply chains.
“The big message that we have across the board to not only the UK, but the Northern Ireland Executive as well because they have responsibility for building those border control posts, is please tell us how and when it’s going to happen,” he said.
Echoing the call is Seamus Leheny, policy manager NI at Logistics UK, who said: “We need milestones on the journey towards the end of grace periods along with agreed mitigations to give businesses stability, certainty and confidence.”
Meanwhile, one positive outcome of the Protocol has been an uplift in local exports, including agri-food trade, as a consequence of NI retaining full access to GB and EU markets.
While exports to the EU overall are also expected to have risen, figures published last month by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) in the Republic of Ireland indicate a year-on-year increase in trade from NI to RoI from €161m to €177m in January 2021.
“Most manufacturers who trade with the EU are reporting strong demand,” said Stephen Kelly, chief executive, Manufacturing NI. “There remain issues with authorities in EU member states, particularly customs, who are still struggling to differentiate between GB and NI which is causing problems, but hopefully that will settle down.”