Northern Ireland news

Brexit Day will see clock start ticking again for NI businesses

Businesses in the north wake up tomorrow to the start of the implementation period, when they will have continued access to markets and customs-free trade between the EU and UK. But their priority must be to start preparing for New Year's Day 2021
Gary McDonald Business Editor

WHETHER bells bong or fireworks flare tonight is irrelevant, though the symbolism of the 11pm chimes won't be lost on businesses here.

That's when the clock will effectively start ticking again for mission-critical issues for the north's economy.

'Corporate Northern Ireland' never wanted Brexit, voted almost unanimously (or so we're told) to remain in the EU when the die was cast in June 2016, yet by default are now being dragged along with Boris's new Britain.

Brexit has induced a period of high-stress, uncertainty and widespread concern for business leaders in the north, and while tonight will make no noticeable difference, there is a 'new normal' and systemic changes hurtling towards us. Expect it to be painful.

When businesses wake up tomorrow to the start of the implementation period (or the transition period if you prefer), they will have continued access to markets and customs-free trade between the EU and UK.

But their priority straight away must be to start preparing for New Year's Day 2021, when Northern Ireland will have a unique status, described as part of the UK customs territory but still applying EU customs rules.

Read More: In the crazy world of Brexit we're all winners – and losers

In practice, this means that goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland could be subject to customs processes and payment of EU customs duties, and that will come at a cost in terms of time and money. Tales of woe will follow for sure, so watch this space.

One of the sectors likely to bear the brunt of the pain will be agri-food, where pigs and chicken, milk and bread, cross borders countless times every hour.

And it comes amid signs that farmers are already struggling. Indeed new figures show the money produced by farming in the north plummeted by 25 per cent last year compared to the previous 12 months - a whopping dip from £386m to £290m.

Read More: Access to both markets doesn't mean the best of both worlds - yet

And when the sums for individual farms are totted up, average incomes are likely to be down by the thick end of £4,000 a year from an average of £28,612 in 2018/19 to £24,679 in 2019/20.

As Ulster Farmers' Union president Ivor Ferguson points out, those stark figures underline the unsustainable financial situation farm families are currently enduring.

He said: "The uncertainty farmers have been dealing with over the last few years, combined with increasing machinery, feed and fertiliser prices, is beginning to seriously impact their businesses." And that's before Brexit.

So, the north has a mere 11 months to do a free trade agreement with the EU as well as garner the mitigations and derogations that retail businesses, as another instance, need to continue to give households the choice and affordability they have now.

As retail industry body head Aodhán Connolly cautions: "A pragmatic approach is needed by all parties to ensure the NI protocol is workable from next January, and well as the inclusion of sector-specific implementation periods to allow businesses to apply the many changes that are negotiated.”

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