Brexit: empty shelves in Northern Ireland

Brexit: empty shelves in Northern Ireland

“It started when Sainsbury’s replaced its Taste the Difference range in Northern Ireland with Spar products more usually found in petrol station forecourts,” said Amanda Ferguson in The Times. Then came the empty shelves in branches of Tesco and Marks & Spencer, as hundreds more product lines ran out. It’s still early days, but it’s fair to say that few residents of Northern Ireland right now would say that they are enjoying the “best of both worlds” under Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, as promised by ministers. Under the new Northern Ireland Protocol, the province, unlike the rest of the UK, remains aligned with the EU’s single market rules on goods – and it is experiencing serious disruption. Hauliers say they are overwhelmed by the paperwork required to cross between Britain and Northern Ireland. And the situation could get much worse when the “grace period” that currently exempts retailers from more arduous checks on food supplies expires at the end of March.

Ministers insist these are just “teething problems”, said Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, but the reality is that such disruption is “baked into the nature of Brexit”. EU officials aren’t being “bloody-minded” by insisting on border checks; it’s standard practice for goods entering the single market. So the delays and lorry queues will remain. And so will the extra costs for British exporters. The Brexit supporter and former Labour MP Kate Hoey has accused the Tories of betraying Northern Ireland by effectively installing a trade border down the Irish Sea, but what did she think would happen? This is “why Northern Ireland wisely voted remain”.

Don’t read too much into the pictures of empty supermarket shelves, said Newton Emerson in The Sunday Times. People with axes to grind have made these temporary shortages out to be far more serious than they really are. Northern Ireland is not about to run out of food. Still, there’s no doubt that the Protocol throws “a huge amount of bureaucratic grit” into distribution chains that were once frictionless, said Peter Foster in the FT. For instance, they make the process of “groupage” – picking several loads of animal and plant products from different places in Great Britain and putting them on one truck to Northern Ireland – “next to impossible”. The disruptions should ease as business owners get more adept at filling in the forms, and the UK and the EU find “workarounds” for structural problems. But the situation needs to improve fast: if you mix Brexit with Northern Irish politics, the result is “dangerously volatile”.

 

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