The newly agreed Windsor Framework offers hope of a more stable future for Northern Ireland, but what does it mean for the poultry sector? Michael Barker reports
At times over the past few years, Northern Ireland has resembled a child caught in a tugging match between two squabbling divorced parents. Nowhere else has the Brexit separation caused as much ongoing uncertainty and sticking plaster solutions, and the situation has presented the Northern Irish poultry sector with a whole set of unwelcome extra problems to deal with.
There are hopes, finally, that the picture is becoming clearer, with the Windsor Framework having been agreed by the UK and EU governments last month as a replacement for the troubled Northern Ireland Protocol. The flagship element of the agreement is the establishment of two ‘lanes’ for goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain – a green lane for goods that will remain in NI, and a red lane for those which may be sent on to the EU. But does the agreement bring to an end the various issues that have complicated the lives of egg and poultry producers, or are there still areas that need ironing out?
Speaking to Poultry Business, Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) parliamentary officer Alexander Kinnear said the union welcomed the deal, adding that there has been significant progress on a number of its key asks. “There are things that are still outstanding, but we are hoping that with an improvement in UK and EU relationships that these can be addressed,” he explained.
In addition to the establishment of trading lanes, sitting in the positive column is the fact that access to the single market has been maintained for Northern Ireland, as even though Britain remains its main market, for certain exporters the EU is a vital part of their livelihood.
There’s considerable relief in the organic egg sector too, which faced a bleak future with the NI to GB Organic Egg Derogation, which allows 5% non-organic protein feed for organic poultry and pigs, set to end on 24 February. The EU requires 100% organic feed, meaning that with Northern Irish farms supplying around 15% of the UK market, the sector would have been at a competitive disadvantage compared to British producers in following EU laws. For now at least, the derogation has been extended by 12 months. “Without the private sector and ourselves pushing for answers, that would have been the end of organic egg production in Northern Ireland, which would have been a very disappointing outcome,” Kinnear says. “It’s an example going forward of how laws and things being opposed in Northern Ireland have an effect on our farmers, and the structures in place need to be robust enough to deal with them before they become an issue.”
One of the major areas left unresolved is that of veterinary medicines, an issue that has huge consequences for the poultry sector. As it stands, a three-year extension to the derogation granted pre-January 2023 has been agreed, giving all sides time to find a satisfactory and permanent solution. UFU president David Brown raised the issue directly with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Lisbon and was reassured by him that it can be resolved during the three-year grace period. That provides some solace, but Kinnear says farmers need permanent solutions as quickly as possible. “We put a huge amount of lobbying into this before Christmas and were surprised by the effort it took to get both sides to realise that this is a very serious issue that needed looking at,” he explains. “We have an extension of the grace period for three years, so we are continuing on as is. The UK government has said it wants to see a resolution that maintains long-established trade lines between GB and NI, and we view veterinary medicines at the same level as human medicines.”
Kinnear believes it is the responsibility of everyone to solve the issue – Daera, Defra, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, representatives of the pharmacy industry and farm businesses – and does not want to see it kicked into the long grass and dealt with as the three-year deadline looms. “Grace periods are not our preferred option,” he adds. “We see them as a necessary evil but for us as an organisation trying to plan long term, a grace period does not bring stability to our industry. We were looking at a situation where over 50% of the veterinary medicine portfolio would have been discontinued coming into Northern Ireland and that would have had implications for the Republic too as we are one epidemiological unit.”
A further ask is for the establishment of a UK-wide SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) agreement, with pressure on the government to do so after Sir Keir Starmer indicated at the NFU Conference that his party would go in that direction. There’s also the question of which elements of EU legislation continue to be applied in Northern Ireland, and the UFU hopes that an agri-food sub-group of the UK joint committees will be set up to help sort that out.
Other industry bodies have also responded positively to the new framework. The British Egg Industry Council declared itself “cautiously optimistic”, welcoming a deal that it said improves prospects for agri-food trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and helps remove trade friction.
“From what we can interpret from the information contained within the Windsor Framework, there is no change regarding the administrative burden on moving goods between GB and Northern Ireland, and an Export Health Certificate will still be required,” notes BEIC chief executive Mark Williams. “The changes relate to retail products, if destined only for the market in Northern Ireland, via the proposed ‘green lane’. However, there is no improvement for ‘egg for processing’ movement.”
There were a number of other niggles with the old Northern Ireland Protocol, such as the fact that all wooden pallets needed to be heat treated, however Williams points out that this was not a concern for the many producers using plastic pallets.
Finally, there’s the issue of paperwork – which has been a general bane of Brexit for many traders following the referendum. “A streamlining of the paperwork that is required to move goods between GB and Northern Ireland would reduce costs for our industry, particularly at a time when so many inputs such as the price of energy, availability of labour, price of feed etc are so high that they are rendering many businesses unviable,” says Williams.
As much as anything, a thawing of relations between the UK and EU, and a more constructive dialogue than some of the tub-thumping nationalism associated with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, offers reason to believe that the outstanding issues can be resolved. There’s still much to sort out, but for now at least, there’s some welcome breathing space and room to manoeuvre.