The growing Brexit threat to Ireland

Northern Ireland has become a touchstone for Brexit Britain as trade barriers threaten wider disruption. In the port of Larne, the challenges being faced offer useful lessons for the wider UK

The union jack flew proudly on Friday over the Victoria Orange Hall, a community centre in the Northern Irish port of Larne. Ferries arrived and trucks rolled off. In many ways it appeared to be business – and trade – as usual.

But tensions have been high in recent days because of post-Brexit border issues. Across much of Northern Ireland, supermarkets are struggling to fill shelves because exporters from Great Britain were unprepared for new checks – so consignments have not arrived.

Then 10 days ago the European commission waded in, in the clumsiest of manners, threatening to invoke the “last resort” article 16 clause of the Brexit withdrawal agreement so it could set up border checks to prevent the UK government using Northern Ireland as a back door route to secure EU supplies of the Covid-19 vaccine. All sides were enraged and the commission backed off.

Opinion on the streets of Larne is divided as to what all this talk of land and sea borders means.

Two ladies out for a stroll, Ivy and Sandy, said there were “no bad vibes in the town” and that tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol – which the DUP now wants scrapped because it creates a border in the Irish Sea – would die down.

But Joseph, in his late 60s, was more worried. There has been graffiti suggesting the unionists had been cheated. “We were sold a pup.

“We were told to vote for this and were promised we would remain part of the UK, but we’re not part of the UK – how can we be if they can’t import food and goods from Scotland? How can they say there’s not a border in the Irish Sea when firms are having to fill out 80 pages of paperwork for whatever they’re shipping?

“Some people are not telling the truth, and there is a strong feeling about it. There’s always ‘them’ in the background,” he said before heading off on his daily exercise round the town.

On Wednesday at prime minister’s questions, the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr told Boris Johnson in a chilling intervention that “the protocol has betrayed us and has made us feel like foreigners in our own country”. He asked Johnson: “Will you legislate, if necessary, to remove the impediments to trade in Northern Ireland? Will you be a man of your word and allow businessmen in my constituency to bin the unnecessary documentation that you told us we could bin? Prime minister, be the Unionist we need you to be.”

Empty shelves in Sainsbury’s at the Forestside shopping centre in Belfast, as a result of rising trade problems.
Empty shelves in Sainsbury’s at the Forestside shopping centre in Belfast, as a result of rising trade problems. Photograph: David Young/PA

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, which represents all types of manufacturers in Northern Ireland, many of whom have been struggling with the new rules, says views on Brexit inevitably feed into wider historic divisions.

“Everything in Northern Ireland is viewed through an identity filter. Unionism is fundamentally opposed to the protocol because it means that Northern Ireland is different to the rest of the UK whereas nationalism and the moderate middle ground is fundamentally opposed to Brexit and supportive of the protocol.”

One security source predicted it would take strong leadership to undo the damage caused by the commission’s article 16 blunder. The source said the EU had always tried to occupy the moral high ground, insisting it would do every everything to protect the Good Friday agreement “and then they go and trigger 16, which blew everything out of the water.

“How do you get back to a position where the adults in the room are acting in a way that brings more stability and not undermining what little stability there is.”

The consequences of Brexit on the island of Ireland are – because of its history – uniquely politically charged. But just over a month after the UK left the EU, the economic effects of leaving are hitting people and their businesses equally hard across the whole country.

The extra bureaucracy, customs checks and added costs of sending goods to the EU, and receiving them from the continent, have taken many by surprise. Farmers have been unable to export livestock to the continent since 1 January. Fishermen can’t sell fresh fish into the EU because it goes off before it can get there – despite the fact that fishing communities were told Brexit would be their salvation after decades of struggle and decline.

The fashion industry warns of dire consequences because of VAT and other issues hitting their business; musicians and their crews say they can’t plan tours to the EU because of problems with work permits and visas. Even flowers from the Netherlands, it seems, could be more expensive this year on Valentine’s Day.

With the pandemic and efforts to vaccinate an entire population dominating the news, the damage to the UK economy is not hitting headlines in the way it would in normal times. But the figures are startling and everyone seems to have a story about parcels delayed at borders.

The Road Haulage Association has revealed to the Observer, after surveying its membership, that UK exports to the EU were down a staggering 68% in January compared to the same period in 2020. Richard Burnett, chief executive of the RHA says he is “very frustrated” because his organisation warned of the problems all of last year but the government did not listen sufficiently, and is still failing to do so now.

Many hundreds of UK companies are now planning to move operations into the EU, so they can distribute their goods more easily within the single market. Some have halted all exports to the EU. The governments of several EU countries are seeking to lure British businesses with financial incentives.

Kelly says that trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has picked up again since early January but in part because exporters are choosing to go through NI to get goods to the Republic, whose imports from the UK are said to be down 60%.

Companies in Northern Ireland are increasingly sourcing goods locally and from countries other than the UK. “The fundamental challenge here is that the UK’s position as a centre of distribution for these islands is greatly diminished by Brexit and people are choosing other routes so we would have a lot of manufacturers here who would now source from the EU and get things delivered direct,” Kelly says.

Stability is threatened in Northern Ireland, UK exports to the EU have fallen off a cliff, many UK businesses are moving jobs and operations abroad, fishing communities feel betrayed. As one managing director of a small UK company, which has had to cease all exports to the EU put it: “We expected difficulties but the range of issues Brexit has created across the board for us and so many others is completely off the scale.”


Toby Helm, Lisa O'Carroll and Mick Browne

The GuardianTramp

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