Brexit: 'Significant questions remain' on NI protocol say businesses

A road sign for Customs and Excise close to the border between Northern Ireland and Republic just outside Newry, Co Down. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
Brendan Hughes

FRESH calls have been made to extend the Brexit transition period as business leaders warned "significant questions remain" on how trade will operate between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The British government yesterday published its proposals for implementing the Northern Ireland part of the EU withdrawal agreement, known as the Northern Ireland protocol.

It confirms new checks will be needed on some goods entering the north from Britain.

However, the government insists Northern Ireland will still have "unfettered" access to Britain's market.

The protocol, aimed at avoiding a hard land border in Ireland, sees the north continue to follow some EU rules on agricultural and manufactured goods.

It is supposed to be operational even if a trade agreement cannot be struck with the European Union by the end of the year, when the transition period is due to finish.

According to the British government, processes on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland will be kept to an "absolute minimum".

"Some checks will be needed, supported by relevant electronic processes" on agri-food movements from Britain, building on what already happens at ports like Larne and Belfast, ministers acknowledged.

They expect to request additional categories to be checked at Belfast port and to designate Larne for live animal imports.

Implementation of the rules will not involve new customs infrastructure, the document said.

There will also be no tariffs on goods remaining within the UK customs territory.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said: "Implementing the protocol in this way will ensure we can support businesses and citizens, and protect Northern Ireland's place in the UK's customs territory while upholding our commitments to the EU's Single Market."

Angela McGowan, CBI Northern Ireland director, said businesses would welcome the government's commitment to minimising red tape.

"However, significant questions remain on the extent of checks and controls for the movement of goods between NI and GB," she said.

Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the government has acknowledged the need to deliver upon its NI protocol obligations.

"This acceptance of the hurdles that need to be overcome is a good starting point but there are still many questions that are left unanswered," he said.

Mr Connolly said more information is needed to "explain exactly how these new ways of working will operate".

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, welcomed the document but added: "There remains the need to see much more detail on how the UK will guarantee unfettered access for NI goods to the GB market. That needs confirmed as a matter of priority."

First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster said the publication had brought "some clarity".

She told Stormont's executive committee: "Obviously I didn't like the protocol at all but we have to make sure we minimise it as much as possible."

Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O'Neill said: "I think that the EU will assess for themselves justifications that have been published by the British government and then have to decide whether they're satisfied."

Shadow Secretary of State Louise Haigh said Prime Minister Boris Johnson has finally faced reality.

"His deal will mean additional checks and processes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland," she said.

"But seven months of denial and mixed messages from the very top have cost businesses the vital time they needed to prepare."

SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole, the party's Brexit spokesperson, said the promises in the document are "broad and sweeping, and give little practical clarity".

He said it was "reckless bordering on immoral that the UK is continuing to refuse to extend the transition period" during the coronavirus pandemic.

Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry also called for an extension "given the need to focus on the Covid-19 crisis and its economic fallout".

The document is expected to prompt further disagreements between the EU and UK over how to implement the protocol.

They have already been in dispute about whether the EU should have a permanent office in Belfast to oversee checks, with the British government opposing the idea.

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