Business leaders in Northern Ireland have called for the deferral of new Brexit trade checks due in January, warning that they still lack crucial details after “little or no engagement” with the UK government on the plan.
The demand for a pause of at least six months after the end of the UK’s transition from the EU on December 31 came as regional trade bodies said coronavirus disruption meant business has “little bandwidth or financial capacity” to deal with new post-Brexit arrangements.
The intervention on Friday by the Northern Ireland business Brexit working group — comprising 15 trade bodies, representing 90 per cent of the region’s companies — has raised fresh doubts about the lack of readiness to implement the Irish protocol in the UK’s EU withdrawal treaty.
The protocol aims to keep Northern Ireland within the European trading regime, to maintain open borders with the Irish Republic, and to protect the 1998 Good Friday peace pact that ended 30 years of political violence.
But it will necessitate new checks on goods and agrifood from Great Britain to ensure compliance with EU single market rules, which business says it is not ready for. The group called for a new trusted trader scheme to cover customs and sanitary and phytosanitary checks for agrifood and for a “generosity of spirit” from the EU in the new regime.
Stephen Kelly, chief of Manufacturing NI, said it was clear that the UK government was not keen on extending the transition. “But we certainly believe that there must be some sort of adjustment period. Quite simply, firms will not be ready even if the UK and EU agree something this year,” he told a press conference.
At issue was whether implementation of the protocol could be delayed after it took legal force in January. “We’re going to need at least six months as a starter because the longer this is left before we get any level of detail, the longer that adjustment period is going to be required,” he said.
“At this point in time we don’t have any process, any system, any IT, any idea about what this is going to look like. So when you don’t have any of that you don’t have any ability to begin training people.”
Michael Gove, UK Cabinet Office minister, set out “light touch” border plans for Northern Ireland last month in a paper criticised for lacking specific proposals.
Aodhán Connolly, director of Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said there was progress in Mr Gove’s paper but insisted that the missing details will be critical.
“The paper is very ambition-heavy but we need more detail. There is a need for detail on how goods flow both ways across the Irish Sea as well part of the whole island economy [in Ireland] and how that can be maintained,” Mr Connolly said.
“We really need to sit down with the UK government not just at the political level but at the exert level so that we can actually work out the nitty gritty of what’s being proposed and tell them what works for business and what doesn’t.
“Quite simply, whatever happens on January 1, 2021 will define how we do business over the next decade at least.”