Michelle O’Neill has warned large retailers that Stormont will legislate to stop them selling non-essential goods if they continue to “take liberties” with Covid guidance.
The deputy First Minister expressed hope the issue of supermarkets “exploiting” the current lockdown arrangements to sell items that were not essential could be addressed at a meeting with the retail sector on Friday.
But Ms O’Neill said ministers would regulate to prevent the practice if need be.
Appearing virtually along with Ms O’Neill before their Assembly scrutiny committee, First Minister Arlene Foster was also critical of the larger retailers, claiming the smaller shops were facing “discrimination”.
Ms O’Neill told committee members: “It’s not straightforward but we absolutely recognise that smaller retailers have been disadvantaged because of larger retailers taking liberties.
“We will discuss this again tomorrow with the executive and we also have a roundtable discussion scheduled for Friday with major retailers around this very issue which obviously is very topical.
“None of the smaller retailers, who are doing the right thing and complying and keeping their doors closed, they shouldn’t be in any way disadvantaged in terms of the larger retailers who are perhaps exploiting the flexibilities that they currently have.
“But if we have to regulate them, that’s what we’ll do.”
Mrs Foster said she hoped a partnership approach could secure voluntary action by the large retailers.
“We would much rather people recognise their moral duty in all of this because it is wrong, and I’ve already said this in the (Assembly) chamber, it is wrong that small independent stores are, for example, selling clothes are told to close by the executive yet those big multinational stores, which also sell clothes as well as essential goods, are able to continue to do that.
“And I don’t think that’s fair, it’s not right, it’s not equitable and it’s discrimination.
“So we will look to those companies to take action.
“They have already taken action, some of them, say now they’re going to enforce the mandatory wearing of masks – a little late for our liking, but still they have decided to do that and we welcome that.
“So we would ask them to also look at their responsibility as large retailers to the rest of the economy in Northern Ireland, because it is not right that those small independent retailers who are receiving stock in for spring and summer now still have a lot of stock left in terms of their winter stuff.
“So we absolutely agree that something has to be done and we will approach this meeting on Friday to try and deal with these issues.”