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Brexit and COVID-19 ‘too much at once’ for Northern Ireland

Delays to Brexit preparations could mean infrastructure isn’t ready for new checks on trade crossing Irish Sea.
04 June 2020 , Katie Coyne

Have your say: Are you concerned about the impact of the protocol without preparation? Would you like to share your views with CIEH? Should CIEH be seeking to respond to this inquiry? If so please email Gary McFarlane at CIEH.

A House of Lords inquiry has begun into what the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol will mean for Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector and its trade with Great Britain.

The aim of the protocol is to prevent any necessity for a border on the island of Ireland (ie, between Northern Ireland and the Republic) by maintaining EU rules and standards within Northern Ireland.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson previously said there will be no checks on trade crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and that businesses asked to fill in new paperwork could “throw it in the bin”.

However, a 23-page document published towards the end of last month confirms that there will be Brexit checks on animals and food going into Northern Ireland from Great Britain from January.

There are fears that the delays caused by COVID-19 to preparing for the necessary changes and infrastructure to comply with the protocol may mean Northern Ireland will simply not be ready – potentially creating chaos.

In a scenario where Northern Ireland is not ready for these changes it is unclear what action, if any, the EU could take if Northern Ireland as part of the UK cannot comply with the checks under the deal it has made. Likewise, even if Northern Ireland is ready, it is unclear what impact these checks will have on the suppliers that currently supply through Northern Ireland. There is a risk that increased costs could prejudice Northern Irish supply chains.

In addition to these concerns, the House of Lords’ EU environment sub-committee – chaired by Lord Teverson – has listed a number of other issues it will look at. These include: possible barriers for Northern Irish agri-food products going to Great Britain; what the future UK-EU relationship will mean for the protocol and the involvement of Northern Irish industry and implementing decisions.

CIEH director for Northern Ireland Gary McFarlane said: “It was always going to be challenging to get the arrangements that needed to be made in place, and then along came COVID-19. And of course, since that has happened, everybody's eye has been off this particular ball as capacity and resources are directed towards responding to the national emergency. But it appears that the British PM is still marching resolutely towards the end of this year.

“Professionally and personally I am very worried, in terms of the impact this potentially could have on Northern Ireland, and on the economy – particularly on top of the current situation. There's going to be impacts from COVID-19. I can't see how there couldn't be.”

McFarlane said the double whammy of an unprepared end to the transition period and COVID-19 “has the potential to wreak havoc with the economy” and warned that there could also be an impact on Great Britain due to a disruption in the flows of goods and components.

The inquiry will be hearing this month from farmers, food producers and transport companies, and will present its findings to Parliament before the summer recess.

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