Northern Ireland news

PLATFORM: Where's my jumper? By Dr Marek Martyniszyn of Queen's University Belfast

Some online orders are not being shipped to Northern Ireland. Picture by Paul Faith/PA Wire

After encountering difficulties ordering a clothes online, Queen's University's Dr Marek Martyniszyn wonders if the protocol is turning Northern Ireland into a cold house?

Following the sovereign choice expressed in a referendum, the UK left the European Union. Brexit was followed by a two-year transition period when the same trading rules applied. The transition was meant to ease shifting to trading on non-EU-member-state rules, or whatever bespoke arrangement was put in place.

The UK government agreed with the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol, a solution keeps Northern Ireland within the EU when it comes to trade in goods. The protocol eliminated a need for a hard border on the island of Ireland, contributing to the preservation of peace. It gives Northern Ireland unique dual access— to both the Great Britain and the much larger EU market for goods. It also carries the potential to constitute a boon for consumers – since that access works both ways.

That is, both GB and EU sellers can continue selling their products in Northern Ireland as if nothing has changed (apart from certain products, such as milk, eggs and meats, that need to be checked on entry). That’s the theory.

In practice, more than half a year has passed since the end of the transition period and consumers in Northern Ireland are being left in a limbo. In particular, they are being let down by GB sellers. Even before Brexit, many GB-based sellers would not supply products to Northern Ireland. Now the situation has got noticeably worse.

To illustrate, in April I ordered sweaters from one of the largest international online stores. That, in itself, was a success because since January products of many brands are no longer being shipped to Northern Ireland by that e-commerce giant. In this case, the products were in stock and the order was accepted. I expected to start using these new products in a just few days. However, that did not happen. More than four months have passed and no delivery has been made. The e-commerce giant is ‘still trying to obtain’ the ordered products, which were in stock at the time I placed the orders. Something is not working.

More recently, I've sought to purchase a jacket using the same website. I attempted to place the order and received a message that the product cannot be delivered to NI. Having an interest in seeing how systems work, I attempted to have that jacket shipped to my parents in Poland. I didn't think it would work, as clearly, if that UK website does not enable shipping to NI, they're surely not be willing to ship to Poland? I was wrong.

I placed the order and the product was delivered to my parents within just a few days. How come a UK-based store says ‘no’ to shipping to an address within the UK but says ‘yes’ to shipping to an address in the EU? Brexit was to bring benefits, not make us worse off. It is very odd that shipment abroad was possible, but delivery within the UK was not.

The fact that this was an e-commerce giant is significant. If such a business stops selling, or limits sales to NI, why should we expect that medium-size or small businesses would bother?

What are the takeaways? GB businesses seem not to have embraced the protocol. It appears that some have decided to abandon Northern Ireland. The UK government, and indeed the Stormont executive should work harder on making sure consumers in Northern Ireland are not being left with limited choice, and effectively higher prices.

Whatever rules were put in place and whatever advice is provided by the UK government in relation to sales from GB to NI, they are not working. Selling a jumper to a customer in the EU should not be easier than selling a jumper to a domestic consumer. While deficiencies in supply existed before, the rules put in place after Brexit seem to have intensified them. Hopefully, these mishaps will be addressed in the next few months and Northern Ireland will not become a cold house during the winter to come.

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