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Brexit: Government must stop 'gambling with the future of Northern Ireland'

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
Belfast Harbour, which handles around two-third of Northern Ireland's seaborne trade. Photo: Getty

The UK government’s “political approach” to Brexit means it is “gambling with the future” of Northern Ireland, leaving many firms in the dark about how to prepare for the end of the transition period in January.

In a new report, the cross-party Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons said that the government has not provided the necessary clarity or detail for businesses to understand how the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement will be implemented.

The committee is calling on the government to clarify what administrative requirements traders will face by October 2020 at the latest, to reimburse firms for any new costs they incur, and for it to report “regularly” on the effect of the new trade arrangements.

“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,” said Simon Hoare, the chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, on Tuesday.

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“With less than six months to go, businesses are still in the dark about what they should be preparing for on 1 January 2021. The situation is now urgent, and the continued lack of detail risks Northern Ireland not being prepared for the new trading arrangements,” the committee said in its report.

Warning that “political theory cannot trump commercial necessity,” the committee said that the government’s approach to Northern Ireland was “apparently informed by limited understanding of how business works.”

In particular, the report calls attention to the fact that which goods should be subject to EU tariffs upon entering Northern Ireland will be decided by the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, which is co-chaired by the UK and EU.

The MPs said that information about how the joint committee and its sub-committees will work should be made available to both the UK parliament and the Northern Ireland assembly so that their decisions can be “properly scrutinised.”

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A UK government paper released in May also does not fully outline the extent to which Northern Irish businesses will face new requirements from 1 January when moving goods across the Irish Sea.

“We are clear that UK businesses trading across the Irish Sea must not face new up-front or ongoing costs, as these would not be compatible with the government’s commitment to unfettered access and to maintaining Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK internal market,” the report said.

The MPs warned that swift clarification was needed, considering the short window available to expand and modernise port infrastructure, develop IT platforms, and recruit new staff.

The “added pressures” of the coronavirus pandemic are also a concern, the committee said.