A group of MPs have claimed the government’s overly political approach to post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland could spell an end to ‘unfettered’ trade between the two nations.
MPs belonging to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee condemned Downing Street over what it says is a lack of clear operational guidelines for businesses on the end of the Brexit transition period come December 31.
The committee’s findings come after a review of the Northern Ireland Protocol – the element of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that sees Northern Ireland operate under different trading rules to the rest of the UK.
Under the terms, which have been developed to avoid border checks on the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland will be a part of the UK’s customs territory but will still follow EU customs law and administer the bloc’s customs rules at its ports.
The region will also follow EU single market regulations on goods.
The government has acknowledged more regulatory checks will be in place for some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, with the expansion of infrastructure to carry out sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) screening of animals and food products.
A report by the committee, which is made up of Tory, Labour, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Alliance and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, criticised the government’s plans and questioned its claim that Northern Ireland companies will have ‘unfettered’ access to the Great Britain market from 2021 onwards.
The MPs called on ministers to provide more detail to businesses on trading arrangements by October 1 and urged the establishment of a fund to help businesses follow protocol compliance.
It also called on government to lay out a ‘plan B’ for ensuring ‘unfettered’ access between Northern Ireland and Great Britain if a comprehensive trade deal with the EU is not reached before the end of the transition period.
Committee chairman Simon Hoare said: ‘Political process must not trump the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
‘The government may be able to wait until the wire for clarity on customs arrangements, but business cannot.
‘Those trading across the Irish Sea have been told to prepare without knowing what to prepare for. It’s now time for them to get that clarity, and they must have it by October 1.
‘If not, business will not have time to prepare for the realistic prospect of friction and delays to products moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.’
Hoare said this could increase the price on a range of goods and push up the cost of living.
He added: ‘Such frictions would be incompatible with the notion of ‘unfettered access’ touted by government ministers. It would put Northern Ireland at a competitive disadvantage compared with the rest of the UK and would damage business confidence at a time when it has seldom been lower.’
Mr Hoare highlighted that many businesses were already struggling as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
‘There is no need, and no reason, to add insult to injury for political gain,’ he said.
‘The government needs to stop gambling with the future of business and of the people of Northern Ireland. Instead, it must set out detailed and realistic proposals on how customs processes will work and which goods will be affected.
Responding to the report, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: ‘We are engaging intensively with businesses and the Executive in Northern Ireland and will set out further guidance later this month.
‘We have set out our clear approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol which will uphold the gains of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, protects the place of Northern Ireland in the UK’s customs territory and ensures no hard border on the island of Ireland.
‘This would guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s goods across the UK, no tariffs on goods moving within the UK, and no new physical customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland.
‘We will formally respond to the Committee’s report in due course.’