This Easter marked the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, a painstakingly negotiated peace and power sharing agreement that ended decades of violence on the streets of Northern Ireland.
People and goods freely flow over the border between the North and the Republic, essential for the numerous businesses that treat the island as one trading entity. The free movement of trade and lack of any border controls have helped successfully maintain the peace and allow both countries to grow economically.
Now a lack of agreement on how to handle the Irish border after Brexit means all of that is under threat. Political stalemate at Stormont has only exacerbated the uncertainty, with the two main parties Sinn Fein and the DUP locked in a bitter dispute that means the Northern Irish parliament has had no executive for over a year.
Despite progress in March in meetings between the prime minister and the EU that hammered out a transition deal post-Brexit, the current position is that the EU has rejected all of the UK Government’s suggestions for resolving the Northern Irish border issue.
A report in the Daily Telegraph claimed that all of the UK’s current proposals for avoiding a hard border had been dismissed out of hand by the EU as unworkable. Having ruled out a customs union with the EU, the UK instead set out plans for either a customs partnership or a customs arrangement. Both of which options are unsatisfactory to EU negotiators.
This has grave implications for the food sector. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) has gone so far as to say the Government ‘fails to recognise many of the central concerns about food’.
Although the UK has so far focussed on ‘technological solutions’ as a way of allowing frictionless border traffic in Ireland and at other ports of entry into the UK, a recent paper published by CIEH and the Food Research Collaboration at City University has made it clear that such solutions simply do not currently exist and don’t address the need for physical checks.
The report warned that Northern Ireland’s food supply could be a risk of serious disruption if the Government continued to neglect the border issue when conducting negotiations.
Tony Lewis, Head of Policy at CIEH, said: “It is very disappointing to see the Government continuing with this misguided approach to the key issue of the Northern Irish border post-Brexit.
“It has been made very clear to British negotiators that by solely pursuing technological solutions, they are ignoring the continuing need for physical inspection of food imported into the UK. Such inspections, by competent environmental health professionals, ensures that food is what it claims to be, comes from where it says it does and is safe.
“The apparent inability to distinguish between customs checks and food safety measures is deeply concerning, and we strongly urge the Government to talk to food safety professionals to ensure that our food supply and safety systems are properly prepared for Brexit.”
And the CIEH is hardly alone in its concerns.
The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee warned in April the Government was almost out of time to negotiate an orderly trade system after the Brexit transition, risking a significant impact on consumers, businesses and workers in the processed food and drink sector.
So what are the options?
Assuming May gets her way and the Brexit bill passes through parliament in a way that means the UK will leave the customs union, there are several possible scenarios, all of which have serious downsides.
The first is a physical barrier at the border, manned by staff who would check and record the crossing of consignments between the North and the Republic to ensure the correct tariffs and taxes were paid. There are huge concerns however that any physical border would become a target for violent protest and could eventually undermine the peace agreement. No party wants a hard border.
The second is having no physical border open but monitoring it virtually with the use of technology, to ensure taxes and tariffs are paid. This is the solution put forwards by Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary.
Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe, former government minister, member of the House of Lords, and chair of Red Tractor told Poultry Business in an interview this option was the likeliest. It would mean, she said, there would be no physical wall, and there would be “some sort of controls similar to how VAT is different, tax is different. It’ll be more consignment based with the smaller firms allowing to go relatively un-regulated.”
But no details have been forthcoming about what exactly this technology would be that would allow a border to be monitored remotely, or even whether such technology currently exists. And would it be acceptable for firms to be able to cross the border unregulated? And as the CIEH has pointed out, this would have implications for food safety.
The third solution is to keep the customs union for Northern Ireland, which would mean the island of Ireland remained on the same page, and the border was effectively shifted into the Irish sea between the island of Ireland and the rest of the UK.
This is the ‘backstop’ position – agreed by the EU and UK during March’s negotiations – that will happen if no other solution can be found. However, May has said repeatedly this is a solution to which no UK prime minister could ever agree.
May‘s governing partners said that leaving the customs union with the rest of the UK was an ‘absolute red line’.
Nigel Dodds, leader of the DUP in Westminster, said his party could never accept a deal that led to Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of Britain.
He told the Conservative Home website: “If, as a result of the Brexit negotiations, there was to be any suggestion that Northern Ireland would be treated differently – in a way for instance that we were part of a customs union and a single market and the rest of the UK wasn’t – for us that would be a red line, which we would vote against the Government, because you might as well have a Corbyn government pursuing openly its anti-Unionist policies as have a Conservative government doing it by a different means.”
The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has huge concerns about what will happen to the 70% of farm exports that currently go to the EU, and how the border will be managed.
UFU president Ivor Ferguson said: “From the outset of the Brexit process we have stressed that the border solution must allow the long-standing trade relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to continue with minimal disruption. These are relationships that affect all of agriculture, and which have been in place since long before the UK and Ireland joined the then EEC. That being said – GB is and will most likely remain our main market. It is essential that whatever is agreed must also allow Northern Ireland to continue to sell food into the rest of the UK unhindered.
“It goes without saying – a workable border solution that creates no additional controls either north to south or east to west is crucial. Politicians made a number of promises during the Brexit campaign, and farmers are looking to them to deliver. Any agreement that hampers this trade is unacceptable.
“The Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland food supply chains, across all agricultural commodities, have become tightly integrated over the years and trade is very fluid. Northern Ireland farmers supply processors in the Republic of Ireland and vice versa. There are also many farm businesses along the border – a number with land on both sides.
“With less than a year to go until Brexit, farmers and growers across Northern Ireland need to know how the industry will be protected from cheap food imports; what arrangements will be made to maintain existing trade with the EU-27, Ireland and the UK and how the industry will be supported. The government has been hinting that it will do the right things – but farming is a long-term industry that has to plan. Not knowing what trade arrangements will be in place or how it will be supported makes that impossible.
“In addition, with the political stalemate at Stormont continuing, decisions on many critical agri-related issues are not being taken and this needs to be addressed. The absence of a working local government and a Minister to raise the voice of farmers, is extremely unhelpful moving forward. A way has to be found to ensure that these decisions can be made, particularly at this time of huge change for the industry.”
Talks in March between Theresa May and the EU’s Brexit negotiators in Brussels led to a big breakthrough and formed the basis of the 21-month transition deal that will avoid the dreaded ‘cliff edge’ scenario.
The transition deal means many trading arrangements will be rolled over, providing an additional buffer for businesses. According to the CIEH, Northern Ireland exports £1.15 billion worth of food to the EU, about 70% of which goes to or through the Republic of Ireland.
To reach an agreement, the UK had to make compromises, agreeing to grant EU citizens arriving in the country during the transition the same rights as those arriving before Brexit.
British negotiators also softened their position on fisheries access, prompting protest from Nigel Farage and others who threw dead fish from a boat into the Thames in a publicity stunt.
But the Irish border is the glaring omission even now a transition deal has been hammered out. And as of now, there are no convincing solutions to the problem that as well as causing huge expense and confusion for business could even threaten the hard-won peace.