January 18, 2022

Brexit, between windfall and headache for Northern Irish companies

Like many bosses in the province, he applauds this configuration, unique to the United Kingdom, which allows him to keep a foot in the gigantic European market – but turns trade with the rest of the country into a puzzle.

We have access to a market of over half a billion people” whereas “since Brexit many of my competitors in the UK have found themselves confined to a market of 70 million people“, describes Declan Gormley.

In its factory, piles of imposing black and green cubes bear the characteristic energy label of the European Union: they are ventilation systems intended for Poland, the company’s main market.

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The Northern Irish Protocol, designed to avoid the return of a physical border to the island of Ireland after Brexit and preserve the 1998 peace agreement, de facto keeps the province in the customs union and the single market European.

A nightmare for the unionists who defend the attachment of the province to the rest of the country, but an asset which gives a head start to Northern Irish companies which export to the EU.

In Northern Ireland’s manufacturing sector, more than 80% of companies are in favor of the protocol, says Stephen Kelly, boss of Manufacturing NI, the organization that represents the industry.

– 120 forms –

The companies that reject the protocol are more often than not “companies that import goods from Great Britain to be entirely consumed in Northern Ireland or, worse, processed and sent back to Great Britain“, according to him.

Because access to the European market has a price: customs controls must take place between the island of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, even if certain products, especially food or medical, currently benefit from grace periods.

Around the port of Larne, one of the region’s commercial gates, signs set the tone: “No to a barrier in the Irish Sea” or “European Union, down the paws“.

And for many bosses in the region, doing business with the rest of the UK has already turned out to be a challenge.

Robin Mercer, owner of the Hillmount Garden Center garden chain, explains that he now has to juggle between 120 different forms to bring roses or other potato plants from Great Britain.

Fortunately, we have good suppliers who continue to work with us“, he says. But others threw in the towel,”it’s just too much paperwork“.

Since Brexit, the plants that line up on its shelves have come more often from the Republic of Ireland than from Great Britain. And he points to a table of potted rhododendrons behind him: “these come from Belgium“.

In an ideal world, he would wish “the disappearance of the protocol“, but while London requires Brussels to renegotiate it in depth, it is above all asking for a simplification of the procedures.

– We are hiring –

About forty kilometers away, in the refrigerated premises of Derry Transport, a ballet of forklifts comes to life, methodically loading 2,000 pallets of food products into trucks bound for distribution centers on the island of Ireland.

The company has seen its shipments increase by a third since the entry into force of the protocol, thanks to increased demand from supermarkets in the region.

For years, supermarkets were bringing in fruits, vegetables and other products“from the rest of the United Kingdom,”but suddenly they realized the advantage of having a local supply chain“, analyzes Fiona Derry, co-director of Derry.

Its main problem today is finding workers, while Brexit makes it difficult to recruit European workers.

The recovery in Northern Ireland is stronger than in other parts of the UK, according to figures released in November.

For Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI, European buyers “have turned away from England, Scotland and Wales, and have come to Northern Ireland instead, which is extremely positive for us“.

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But there is no risk of cutting ties with Great Britain, he assures us. “We have the same currency, the same supply chain, the same legal system, the same language“, it’s a market”incredibly important to us“.


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