Northern Ireland news

Demand for fast action to ensure north's businesses get unfettered access to Britain

Claire Hanna said Northern Ireland businesses would face additional barriers to trade. Picture by Hugh Russell

THE BRITISH government has been urged to replace its "sloganeering ad campaigns" with a genuine effort to ensure the north's businesses enjoy frictionless trade across the Irish Sea from the start of 2021.

The call from the SDLP's Claire Hanna came as she joined with a group of cross-party MPs in condemning the Tory government for leaving businesses ill-prepared for the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.

A report published yesterday by Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said an "overly political" approach to post-Brexit trading arrangements had left the region's businesses in the dark.

The MPs' inquiry into the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol element of the Brexit withdrawal agreement questioned Prime Minister Boris Johnson's assertion that firms in the north would have unfettered access to markets in Britain.

The protocol means Northern Ireland will be a part of the UK's customs territory but will still follow EU customs law.

Ms Hanna said Northern Ireland businesses would face additional barriers to trade with Britain if the Tory government didn't take action on its unfettered access pledge.

“If this government applied the same energy and resource to solving these problems for local businesses as it does to sloganeering ad campaigns, we may be in a better position," the South Belfast MP said.

"As it stands, there has been no indication that the needs of people and businesses in Northern Ireland are a priority and that needs to change."

Stormont junior minister, Sinn Féin MLA, Declan Kearney said the report confirmed the British government's failure to "deliver on the terms of the Irish Protocol".

"I have previously raised concerns about lack of preparation regarding implementation of the protocol, and lack of proper engagement between British officials and local business leaders – I have repeatedly said in recent weeks that time is now running out," he said.

Alliance MP and committee member Stephen Farry said the British government needed to provide detailed information on how trade checks across the Irish Sea are going to operate, while also ensuring that the "necessary staffing, infrastructure and IT systems are in place"

"As things stand, there is a real risk of chaos for Northern Ireland at the beginning of January on top of the continued economic impact for the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

Ulster Unionist peer Lord Reg Empey said cabinet ministers were attempting to "hide from the reality".

“I appeal for an end to this denial nonsense – it is doing nobody any good,” he said.

DUP pro-Brexit MP Sammy Wilson said the report was “fairly damning”.

“Nigel Dodds and myself both pointed out that these kinds of problems were going to arise – that the government was promising one thing while agreeing something else in a formal report with the EU,” he told the BBC.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said the British government risked creating a "perfect storm" for Northern Ireland, with businesses unprepared for Brexit while battling the Covid-19 crisis.

"The prime minister owes it to Northern Ireland businesses, so badly let down by his broken promises, to urgently lay out the precise details of the new checks and arrangements that must be implemented in less than six months' time," she said.

Responding to the report, a Cabinet Office spokesman said: "We are engaging intensively with businesses and the executive in Northern Ireland and will set out further guidance later this month.”

He said the protocol would "guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland's goods across the UK."

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