Northern Ireland

John Manley: Faint promises about unfettered access provide little solace to the north's businesses

The details of the unfettered access to Britain's market promised by Boris Johnson have yet to be finalised. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire
The details of the unfettered access to Britain's market promised by Boris Johnson have yet to be finalised. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire

IT’S less than six months until the end of the transition period, when Brexit gets real, yet businesses across the north are none the wiser about what kind of trading environment they’ll be operating in after December 31.

There’s general agreement among manufacturers and other firms that there are good opportunities to be had under the terms of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol that formed part of last October’s withdrawal agreement.

Designed to avoid a hard border in Ireland, the protocol means Northern Ireland will remain in the UK's customs territory but will still follow EU customs law and administer the bloc's customs rules at the region's ports.

However, how that protocol will be implemented in practice has yet to be finalised. It’s an uncertainty, on top of the uncertainties brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, that businesses could well do without.

Boris Johnson’s pledge that Northern Ireland’s firms will have “unfettered access” to the market in Britain has so far proved to be empty – and it’s not just his political foes and rivals that have concluded this but some of his own MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Simon Hoare, the Tory MP that chairs the committee, said the British government was “gambling” with many businesses’ future by failing to provide clarity about how trade will be conducted across the Irish Sea.

He argues that if the uncertainty persists beyond October 1 then trade will be hampered and costs – including the cost of living – will increase.

The British government has already acknowledged that there will be additional regulatory checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland and its current negotiations with the EU mean it can be excused, to a minor degree, for failing to spell out exactly how east-west trade will operate.

Yet too often the prime minister’s from-the-hip rhetoric doesn’t chime with what has been conceded elsewhere by his government.

He has adopted a duplicitous approach that takes us for fools. Even his former allies in the DUP are belatedly beginning to see through the prime minister’s bluster.

The MPs’ report also calls on the British government to ensure there is a “plan B” to ensure unfettered access from the north into Britain in the event of a no deal scenario, an outcome that many Tories would welcome but one which would likely lead to even greater problems on this side of the Irish Sea.

As the clock ticks down towards the end of the transition period, nervousness among the business community grows but the only solace the British government can currently give is a faint promise that it’ll work itself out.