Business

This is the kind of retail crisis which just won't do . . .

EMPTY SHELVES: Shortages in supermarkets across the north are increasing. Picture: Mal McCann

LAST weekend was the first of the new post-Brexit rate deal era. It was marked by a litany of complaints, or at least observations, from shoppers who faced empty shelves in some supermarkets and smaller stores. The haulage and distribution sectors have never faced a bigger convergence of issues to overcome and to be fair it is clear that lorry drivers and logistics managers appear to be at the very sharp end of the Brexit / Covid crisis.

BBC Northern Ireland business editor John Campbell, who has been an excellent guide to the everyman throughout the prolonged agony of the Brexit and trade deal process, said on Twitter last week: “It looks as if you unpick and loosely re stitch trading relationships with your major partner at enormous speed there are some consequences.”

He can be funny John. And of course there are major consequences, despite the efforts of some to sugar coat the shortage of some foodstuffs as run of the mill issues with nothing to see here. When you see empty shelves for yourself you know there is a problem. The issue cannot be exclusively put down to the fallout from the Northern Ireland protocol either; there are food shortages being reported across the UK.

We are being more impacted than others though with some major retailers halting online deliveries to Northern Ireland for the time being and major retailers being quite upfront in publishing a list of goods which are likely to be scarce. That list now runs to hundreds of items though thankfully for some Percy Pigs are still in plentiful supply.

Of course these issues will settle down, eventually, and the Protocol and the deal with which it is bound up is far better than living with a no deal scenario. The business representative bodies who have been to the fore in negotiating with and cajoling the government are pulling out the stops to ensure as smooth a trading process as possible, but there will be hiccups. Denying that, as the Secretary of State has done, serves no useful purpose and neither does making the avoidance of blame one's main priority as some in the pro Brexit DUP have done this week.

Brandon Lewis spent all of last week claiming to anyone who would listen that there is no Irish sea border. This kind of Trumpian politics is a nonsense, we have eyes to see and we know that additional border and customs posts have been erected, we can see the queues of delivery lorries. In fact, Michael Gove, while Brandon Lewis was doubling down on his claim, was happy to state that the impact of the sea border is likely to get worse before it gets better. How can it get worse if it doesn't exist?

At the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee last week Ian Paisley almost blew his top calling on the freight industry representative to call for the abolition of the NI Protocol, so alarming are its impact. Thankfully industry representative Seamus Leheny had a cooler head and pointed out that to invoke Article 16 and effectively revoke the protocol while there is nothing to take its place would be irresponsible, at best and an act of self harm at worst (another one, but sure who is counting?).

The irony of Paisley taking the high ground on the negative impact of Brexit was added to with Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots seeking to lay the blame for the delays and shortages at the door of the SDLP, Sinn Fein and Alliance parties who he said, supported the protocol. It is a line which Sammy Wilson uses from time to time and even Jim All-star joined in last week.

It doesn't wash, people are not stupid, businesses are not stupid. Even Arlene Foster seemed a bit embarrassed by Ian Paisley's comments. On the day Ian Paisley called the protocol and ‘unmitigated disaster', the First Minister was looking at it as a ‘gateway to opportunity.' I guess you pay your money and take your pick. Only one party here supported Brexit and the DUP while they held the balance of power in the Commons rejected every form of soft Brexit, indeed every form of Brexit at all, as they sought a hard Brexit and helped eject Theresa May from Downing Street. Of all the local parties they alone are the Brexit champions and they own its effects.

The protocol is in place now and we will be living with it for at least the next four years and most likely for a lot longer than that. The initial issues will be resolved surely and our position with a foot in the EU single market and the UK market does after all give us a unique opportunity to attract new investment and new job opportunities which, post Covid (we will get to a post Covid situation, eventually) we will need all the investment and jobs we can attract. It was encouraging and timely to see Invest NI chief executive Kevin Holland stressing this opportunity last week as he highlighted Northern Ireland's ‘unique position.'

We might end up, in the long term, doing quite well out of our unique position, but we will have bumps along the way.

Even John Campbell bought a case of lemonade when he meant to get tonic water last week. That's the kind of retail crisis which just won't do.

:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast

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