Business leaders in Northern Ireland are optimistic that Brexit barriers preventing parcels, pets, potatoes and plants getting to the region from Britain will be eased after a meeting between Michael Gove and his EU counterpart, Maroš Šefčovič, on Thursday.
They said the UK and the EU had a legitimate reason to remove or ease the barriers because they were having an impact on daily lives, in breach of a pledge in the Northern Ireland protocol that states the “application of this protocol should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland”.
The interruption to supermarket and parcel deliveries in the first few weeks of January and the continued refusal of some high street chains to deliver in Northern Ireland have heightened tensions among loyalists and are beginning to fuel resentment among the wider population.
Roger Pollen, the head of the region’s Federation of Small Business, said they told Gove and Šefčovič, who chair the UK-EU joint committee tasked with implementing the Brexit agreement, there was a real sense of urgency about resolving the issues.
“The trouble with things like the parcels issue is that it starts to build up a lot of resentment on the street and when people here are experiencing the ‘not available in Northern Ireland’ then the protocol is having an impact on the life of communities,” he said.
Business leaders said they were pleasantly surprised by the understanding shown by Gove and Šefčovič following weeks of problems involving garden centres, supermarkets and municipal tree planting. It emerged on Wednesday that orders for 100,000 trees from Scotland and Wales had to be cancelled because of a ban on British soil and EU prohibitions on imports of native trees including oak.
“The messages that we are working as hard as we can, but that we need support to make it work, really seemed to resonate with both of them,” said Aodhán Connolly, the director of Northern Ireland’s retail consortium. “They were positive about everything that we put forward which was very disarming. They’ve given a genuine commitment to work with us.”
Among the four demands business leaders made was an extension to the April grace period for supermarket and parcel deliveries from Great Britain without customs declarations. A second grace period for chilled meats, including sausages, entering Northern Ireland without health checks expires in July, and business leaders are urging the EU and the UK to reconsider the issue entirely.
Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, said there appeared to be a clear understanding that the UK and the EU needed to be active on the ground to ensure the protocol worked.
The appointment of David Frost as the new Brexit minister was not raised at the meeting, but Kelly said it was imperative he got to grips with the unique issues Northern Ireland presented as he succeeded Gove as co-chair of the joint committee.
“A massive amount of time has been spent on making sure politicians in London understand the requirement for fixes. There’s obviously going to be a change of guards in terms of the new minister responsible for these issues and it’s important that they grasp those concerns as quickly as Michael Gove grasped them,” he said.
Apart from an extension to the grace periods, business leaders have called for measures to provide certainty through long-term solutions, the simplification of border checks and mitigation to prevent costs for business and consumers in Northern Ireland rising, which they say would be discriminatory in the single UK market.