Northern Ireland neglected in Brexit negotiations, says report

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: iStock/egal
Picture: iStock/egal
A “frictionless” border is vital to food trade into, out of and through Northern Ireland after Brexit, according to a report.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) and City, University of London said there is no plan for how food trade will fit into changes to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The border between the two countries is currently, in effect, invisible but any future deal which requires border checks and infrastructure raises food safety, standards, crime and fraud risks, says the report​.

New arrangements could increase prices, reduce access to healthy food, cause transport delays and harm agri-food businesses.

The briefing paper was published before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS​​) Committee report on trade with the EU after Brexit which also discussed the border issue​.

What a border change could mean

Authors argue continuing supply of safe, high-quality, healthy food depends on the absence of border controls between Northern Ireland, EU member state the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and the EU.

The Food Research Collaboration and CIEH said UK Government is neglecting the issue in negotiations and urged publication of plans for what ‘food Brexit’ will look like for Northern Ireland.

The group brings together academics and civil society organisations. It has 600 members and is based at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London.

Tony Lewis, co-author and head of policy at CIEH, said: “Port health officers, customs officers and other trade and health-related professionals cannot resolve political difficulties, nor should responsibility for resolving practicalities be placed at their door.

“The apparent inability to distinguish between customs checks and food safety measures is deeply concerning, and we strongly urge the government to talk to food safety professionals to ensure that our food supply and safety systems are properly prepared for Brexit.”

CIEH represents more than 8,000 members in the public, private and non-profit environmental health sectors.

NI needs some clear decisions

Northern Ireland exports £1.15bn worth of food to the EU and about 70% goes to or through the Republic of Ireland. 

Great Britain is the biggest single market for the Northern Ireland food and drink processing sector and it also depends on substantial imports, especially of fruit and vegetables.

The agri-food sector in the country employs 100,000 people.

Professor Tim Lang, of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, said: “The Northern Ireland food system urgently needs some clear decisions to be taken by all sides in respect of ‘food Brexit’.

“This important issue is not, at present, receiving the attention that it deserves, and this failure of food governance should not be allowed to continue​,” said the report’s co-author.

Recommendations and smooth border

The report highlights issues including either NI is in the Single Market and/or Customs Union or it is not, plans for how inspections might be resourced and managed post-Brexit are required and responsibilities of the three dominant retailers [Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s] to prevent NI’s food system being cut off from ROI and GB.

Authors dismissed as ‘vague and unrealistic’ the idea technology could check food (and other goods) crossing between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland.

Gary McFarlane, co-author and the CIEH’s director in Northern Ireland, said such solutions may be possible in the future but do not presently exist.

“Furthermore, technological solutions cannot replace the need for food inspection by qualified and competent food professionals. Proper food inspection requires someone to look inside lorries and make judgements about critical food safety and standards.”

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