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Northern Ireland would be 'Wild West of UK' with tariff-free Brexit access from Republic

Fears Government's plan would disadvantage local firms and boost smuggling

Angela McGowan
Angela McGowan
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

A no-deal Brexit plan to have tariff-free movement of goods from the Republic into Northern Ireland to avoid a hard border will make us the "Wild West of the UK", it has been claimed.

The Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) said the proposals, if implemented, would leave many food firms here just weeks from going bust.

The Government released the proposals for avoiding a hard border after MPs rejected the Prime Minister's withdrawal agreement for the second time on Tuesday night.

Officials said the plan was "strictly temporary" and "unilateral" to protect the unique circumstances here and avoid a hard border.

It would be implemented "unless and until" a trading agreement could be agreed between the UK and EU.

The Government said it would not introduce any new checks or controls on goods moving from the Republic in a no-deal scenario.

Tariffs also announced by the UK yesterday which will be levied on imports from the EU and the rest of the world would not apply to such goods coming from the Republic across the border.

The Government said it recognised that businesses and farmers would have concerns about the impact of the approach on their competitiveness.

It added that the measures only mitigated the impacts of Brexit within the UK's control and did not set out the position on goods moving from here to the Republic.

That will be a matter for the EU to decide, as the Republic alone, as a member of the bloc, will not be able to reciprocate on the UK's arrangement.

Seamus Leheny of the Freight Transport Association said the plan was not good for the status of Northern Ireland.

It was at risk of becoming a hub for smuggling as firms used it as a means of tariff-free access to the British market.

"You create this place almost like the Wild West, you become that neighbour from hell, both for the EU and Great Britain," he claimed.

Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhan Connolly called the plans "a mess" and echoed the claim of Mr Leheny.

"The Government and the EU must see that this is simply now a mess. This will affect Northern Ireland's reputation as a serious trading area, effectively turning us into the Wild West of the UK. This proves yet again we need a deal."

NIFDA chairman Declan Billington said the tariffs that would apply to local food producers sending goods to the Republic put its members at a disadvantage.

"We reckon the businesses that can't actually access their export markets, and in particular the farmers, after a couple of weeks will run out of money.

"Processors who find that there is more milk in the market than they can process, but they can't actually export it to the markets they had - what are they going to do?

"We're talking about businesses surviving a matter of weeks in the worst case scenario."

CBI NI regional director Angela McGowan  said the plan would lead to a hard border as the EU would have "no option" but to impose tariffs on goods coming from the UK.

"The Government's proposals are confused at best, disingenuous at worst. There are serious questions over deliverability, and potentially consequences for the island of Ireland on smuggling and tariff proposals. This latest proposed tariff scheme would leave Ireland with no option but to apply EU tariffs on all goods coming from the UK and therefore would require substantive checks to take place at the Irish border. Therefore, this desperate and ill-thought through trade measure will create all the conditions for a hard border in Northern Ireland."

But Ulster University Business School economist Dr Esmond Birnie called the plans a positive move on the way to free trade.

He said lifting of tariffs on a wide range of imports UK-wide would make goods cheaper for consumers. The percentage of goods coming in to the UK from overseas, including the EU, which would be tariff-free would go up from 80% to 87%.

However, while all EU imports into the UK are currently tariff-free, that would drop to 82%.

Dr Birnie added: "Of course local businesses have legitimate questions about the 'process' side of all of this, but as in the rest of the UK it is worth emphasising the potential gain to consumers in Northern Ireland and also to businesses here which process goods and materials brought over the border from the Republic of Ireland."

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