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Mixed response as government backs soft Irish border
Published:  17 August, 2017

The government’s plan for a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has received a mixed reaction from the meat sector. 

Britain strongly reiterated its intention to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in a Brexit position paper, published by the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) yesterday.

The 28-page document outlined how to maintain a frictionless border with Ireland and explained that meat trade disruption could be avoided via “regulatory equivalence”. This would see the UK and the EU agree to meet the same high standards on food production and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures to avoid customary checks on agri-food products at EU borders.

But the government’s policy proposal has received a mixed response from the meat industry.

Conall Donnelly, CEO of the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association, praised the paper’s “ambitious” plan to remove meat trade barriers, but warned the derogation on customs for small and micro-businesses could create an “uneven playing field”.

“Likewise, we would be concerned about the potential for the development of grey markets,” he said.

“Ultimately, the question is whether it is achievable given that, in the EU position, official controls appear to be sacrosanct. For this to work, there will need to be compromise all round and this may mean the UK will need to temper some of its ambitions in terms of agreeing new trade deals which would potentially bring imports produced to different standards into the UK.”

Colin Smith, industry development manager at the Livestock and Meat Commission for Northern Ireland, told this site: “Government must recognise that the Irish border is a unique issue. The industry is encouraged that flexible and imaginative solutions are being explored to try and avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, but there are real concerns that respecting the integrity of the EU’s legal order could lead to significant disruption if EU Official Control Regulations have to be applied at the border.

“Trade in livestock, meat and meat products between the two jurisdictions is critically important. For example, 43% of Northern Ireland lambs are typically processed in RoI. Tariff walls, disruption to the free movement of labour and the cost of regulation and bureaucracy are all serious concerns to beef and sheep industry stakeholders, which must be addressed.”

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), said: “We welcome the fact that the paper acknowledges that the Irish situation is unique and will require an imaginative and flexible approach and we support that ambition and will look to work with the authorities to find those solutions.

“However, it must be recognised this will have to be negotiated with the EU and requires the approval of all the EU27, so there is much to be done. We hope that this paper will act as a catalyst for these negotiations to progress as soon as possible, so that at least one area of huge uncertainty for many businesses in the meat industry can be resolved and those businesses can start to plan for the future.”

Finding a practical solution to the Irish border that respects the Good Friday Agreement – which protects ongoing North-South cooperation on agriculture, among other issues – has been a major concern for the meat industry.