The Brexit withdrawal agreement to which government are now committed will have a significant impact on businesses in Northern Ireland and unlike the earlier attempts by Theresa May it will mean a changed relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The border in the Irish Sea will create an additional administrative burden for materials or product entering Northern Ireland from the UK mainland. The potential for further complication in terms of different duties applied to this trade will depend on whether the UK can negotiate a deal with the EU over the next 12 months or so. 

The advantage of the agreement over a no – deal outcome is that Northern Ireland will remain in regulatory alignment with the European Union, with access to the single market for the foreseeable future, while the rest of the UK will seek to pursue new trade deals and will be free to develop their own regulatory rulebook. 

While local farmers and businesses will continue to conform to European standards for at least 4 years (with a further 2 year withdrawal period should our assembly decide to end the arrangement) – there is however no indication that they will continue to enjoy the EU system of farm support. 

The £240 million of single farm payment which is essential to the viability of local farming may be lost in favour of unspecified and unquantified package of incentives for environmental protection.

A major concern in all of this is how can Northern Ireland businesses engage with the EU when the rest of the UK has withdrawn. The UK government have already removed their civil servants from Brussels and UK agencies will no longer be eligible for membership of many European committees and forums across a wide range of activity.  

According to NIGTA Chief Executive, Robin Irvine “We will be subject to EU regulation – but with no voice at the table when these regulations are being discussed and negotiated. Any divergence between UK and EU regulation has the potential to create distortion in the market and we need to be able to exert some influence to ensure a level playing field. It will be important for local representatives to have access to the various EU rule making bodies and the communication with Brussels will be essential. New bodies and structures -taking a pragmatic approach at an all-island level will also be required to make things work when we can no longer look to London for direction. 

A major concern for the agri-food sector is the potential for this new government - with a substantial majority – not depending on support from the rural areas or from the minor parties – to enter into trade deals which would allow the UK to significantly increase the import quota of cheaper food while still requiring the high welfare and regulatory standards for home produced product.  

This cheap food will be enthusiastically welcomed by the electorate but could be devastating for a region like Northern Ireland where we depend on exporting the vast majority of what we produce. Northern Ireland has a population of less than 2 million people but we produce meat, milk and eggs for almost 10 million consumers. The natural market for this product is mainland UK - but if this market is devalued by open access to imports and competition from low cost regions such as South America Northern Ireland producers will be glad that they still have access to Europe’s 450 million consumers and the challenge will be to refocus the business model beyond the UK shores.”