Manufacturers in Northern Ireland have ranked the post-Brexit arrangements for trade in Northern Ireland as the least of the challenges facing their businesses, according to a quarterly industry survey, with 28% saying trade with the EU has increased over the last year.
The top concern was listed as labour shortages caused by the pandemic but also the end of freedom of movement that prevents EU citizens living in border counties in the republic of Ireland crossing into Northern Ireland for work.
“The protocol was the least of their worries,” said Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland (MNI), which conducted the survey. While we all get caught up in the political narrative, in business the bigger concerns are staff recruitment, productivity and then the pandemic itself.
“It shows the narrative favoured by the DUP [Democratic Unionist party] and others that Northern Ireland is going to hell in a handcart because of the protocol is quite clearly not the case, quite the opposite,” Kelly added.
He said there was a “huge uptick” in the number of firms accepting that the “protocol is here to stay”, but many want it to work better through simplifications of paperwork.
The survey reveals some businesses are now enjoying a Brexit dividend, with 28% saying they have experienced an increase in trade with the EU including the republic of Ireland. Two in five businesses also want the Northern Ireland executive, the equivalent of the government’s cabinet, to seize the unique opportunities the country has to trade with both the UK and the single market.
The survey comes as the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who took over Brexit negotiations after the resignation of Lord Frost before Christmas, holds a second day of talks with the European Commission over the protocol and wider relations with the EU. Truss is hosting the commission’s vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, at Chevening House in Kent.
Sources say that the UK will continue to press for further compromises on the checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Businesses surveyed by MNI show that while it may not be a priority concern, many are still experiencing a “negative impact” of the checks and customs controls on goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. However, the portion expressing concern in the last quarter is just over 50% down from 77% in the first quarter.
Great Britain’s readiness for the customs paperwork that applies to goods “remains the big issue” as one in five “report their GB suppliers are unwilling to send” to Northern Ireland.
“This has remained consistent throughout 2021,” said Kelly.