Businesses ‘reluctant to abandon relationships established during period of trading difficulties’
New food and drink supply chains rapidly established amid trading difficulties between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are not expected to vanish overnight under the Windsor Framework.
Aiming to modify problematic elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the framework has been broadly welcomed by representatives from the food and grocery sectors.
Controls on products of animal origin traded between GB and NI has been one of the key areas of contention around the protocol, leading to the DUP collapsing Stormont over a year ago.
Firms on both sides of the Irish Sea were unprepared for the introduction of new customs declarations between GB and NI in the wake of Brexit, with many exiting the NI market.
And, while welcoming any easing of trade friction and bureaucracy if the framework is adopted, firms may be reluctant to abandon their new supply partners.
“It was such a disruption to the business when we had to make all that change,” said Patricia Gilbert, co-owner of Ballylagan Organic Farm.
“I would suspect a lot of businesses in Northern Ireland have had to find alternative supply chains and might find some of those supply alternatives are actually working better for them.
“If you’ve now built up a relationship over a number of years with a continental supplier or maybe a supplier down in the south of Ireland, why would you change back?”
Stakeholders are still getting into the nitty-gritty of the framework, with retailer and wholesaler Musgrave among those working through the detail.
“It is essential that businesses are given time, certainty and stability to adapt to these new arrangements,” said a Musgrave spokesperson.
Simon Roberts, CEO of Sainsbury’s, said: “We welcome the positive news. This means that our customers in Northern Ireland will once again be able to access the full range of products as customers in Great Britain and at the same great prices.”
Neil Johnston, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said: “Early reports suggest that the new plan scraps almost all checks on goods crossing between GB and NI. This would be welcomed by retailers; however, we need to see the detail of the agreement and then we will need to see if it actually works in practical terms.
“Businesses need clarity and certainty as soon as possible. It is vital that any proposals prevent excessive paperwork and cost.”
Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association executive director Michael Bell said the priority is to secure a durable, negotiated solution maintaining frictionless trade.
“It will take time to fully analyse the document and understand implications for our members, but, on first reading, the Windsor Framework looks substantial and balanced and represents the kind of pragmatic, practical solutions that we have been urging,” he said.
Ulster Farmers’ Union president David Brown commended the EU and UK negotiators on reaching agreement, particularly proposals to lift the ban on plants and seeds traded between GB to NI.
“Other issues such as livestock movements, veterinary medicines, plant-protection products and grain for livestock feed still require a technical solution,” he said.
“Through improved engagement and constructive discussions, we want to see solutions found that deliver for those impacted by these challenges.”
“I haven’t quite got the will at the minute to suddenly go back to getting everything from GB,” said Patricia Gilbert, co-owner of Ballylagan Organic Farm.
Non-homegrown supplies into the farm’s small shop collapsed virtually overnight when many GB suppliers suddenly realised they would have to complete complex, multiple customs declarations across small mixed loads.
Patricia scrambled to find new suppliers for fruit and veg, dairy, meat and other lines containing animal products such as honey, chocolate and biscuits. The Netherlands has become a key supplier and trade has increased with the Republic of Ireland.
Welcoming the Windsor Framework, she said: “I do believe that if this goes through and does what we believe it’s going to, it leaves Northern Ireland in a very advantageous position, particularly for manufacturing companies, which still have the route into Europe.”
Having spent two years establishing new suppliers, Patricia is not prepared to simply revert to GB traders. However, she has already heard some GB suppliers are hopeful they will be able to send products of animal origin to NI shops again through the Trusted Trader Scheme.
And there are disadvantages from sourcing beyond the UK.
“The thing about buying in from Europe is we’re at risk from fluctuating exchange rates. If the rate suddenly went the other way, I would have to go back and look at GB suppliers. Then there are transportation and product costs to take into account.”
Celebrating 90 years in business at the start of February, Arcadia Delicatessen has weathered “war, troubles, a global pandemic and economic mayhem”.
It has also survived the NI Protocol, with the business at one point fearing it wouldn’t even be able to bring in cheeses from Great Britain.
It wasn’t as bad as all that, but the popular Lisburn Road deli has faced a tiresome burden of paperwork, lost some suppliers and had to bulk buy from others.
Laura Brown, who operates the business with her husband, Mark, has welcomed the Windsor Framework.
“Basically, anything that reduces friction and paperwork is good,” she said.
“Any time we bring in a pallet from England, we’ve had to fill out supplementary declarations. We’re a very small team, with less staff than we need at the minute anyway, and it just adds an admin burden.”
A couple of small companies decided they didn’t have the time or staff to trade with Northern Ireland, including the English supplier of a best-selling speciality biscuit line.
“Hopefully this will mean the supply chain is much easier and we’ll be able to get those things in,” said Laura.
Arcadia has been placing bigger orders to minimise supplementary declarations, while some suppliers have been setting higher minimum orders.
“But then that brings its own problems, because we’re a small business and we don’t have the storage for larger orders,” she said.
“Hopefully we can just go forward and do what we do best. We’re just a small family business, supplying our own customers in our own area.”
Many NI manufacturers have picked up new business post-Brexit when companies trading here faced issues around shipping some food produce from GB to NI.
Henderson Group stepped in to supply meat products to Sainsbury’s, while Boots and M&S began sourcing sandwiches from Deli Lites and Around Noon respectively.
Deli Lites CEO Brian Reid has been a vocal supporter of the advantages around having access to both the GB and EU markets, which the Windsor Framework aims to maintain.
“We have the advantage of access to both markets, and that is a fantastic opportunity,” he said.
“For that to be removed, it would put us at a great disadvantage.”
Access to both markets had resulted in Deli Lites’ contract to supply sandwiches to Boots stores in NI, replacing the retailer’s previous GB suppliers, he said.
And new business drove the creation of 45 new jobs at its Milltown Industrial Estate factory as part of a £4.3m investment in 2021 supporting growth in EU and global markets.
“The protocol has helped us win business we wouldn’t have otherwise, because of those advantages. We’ve also been getting more enquiries and business that we wouldn’t be getting if we didn’t have that access.
“Without access, it will make things more difficult for us and other food and drink producers. It will add complexities that are not there currently, and companies will be forced to rethink their exporting strategies.”