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Brexit poses serious threat to UK-Irish food trade - May must act to protect our bond

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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

REUTERS

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

British Prime Minister Theresa May aims to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of the month, which will give formal notice of the UK's intention to leave the EU.

The UK's food and drink sector, for whom I work, employs four million people - 13.5pc of the UK workforce. We are clear on our priorities as we enter two years of negotiations. Top of this list is the crucial question of what will happen to trade between the UK and the Republic of Ireland once the UK has left the EU. This is a question rooted in our shared - and often contentious - history, in deep bonds of friendship, and in the physical and economic realities of both nations.

The Irish Border is - currently - the UK's only land border with the EU. The food and drink industries of both countries are deeply interlinked.

The Republic buys more from the UK than the United States, China, Russia, Brazil, Canada and Japan combined. Nearly a fifth of the UK's total food and drink exports cross the Irish Sea. Similarly, more than a third of Ireland's own exports head to the UK and more than half of Irish beef and cheese is bought in the UK.

From a processing perspective, Northern Ireland and Great Britain combine to supply 90pc of the flour used in the Republic. A quarter of all Northern Irish milk is processed south of the Border and the milk from one cow in Northern Ireland may move across the Border multiple times before it goes into a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream.

The two-way trade traffic and seamless single market which exists between the Republic and the UK is a vital asset for both nations. It is essential that the UK government ensures existing tariff-free trading arrangements are maintained. Food is at the heart of national security. If you can't feed a country, you don't have a country.

Yesterday, signatories from 35 representative trade bodies from across the UK food and drink supply chain signed an open letter to the UK government.

It called for an early agreement on future trade with the Republic of Ireland once the UK has left the EU.

This letter further enforces the constructive dialogue we have had with various UK government departments. To this end, we are working closely with colleagues from across the food and drink sector, including Food Drink Ireland, the Irish Business and Employers' Confederation (Ibec) and the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association.

Going over the World Trade Organisation (WTO) cliff to provoke a sudden transformation of Britain's trading arrangements would be hugely damaging for our industry and for the wider economy on both sides of the Border.

In the event that new customs requirements cannot be avoided, continuity and predictability for business must be a priority. The UK government must put in place robust plans to deliver transitional arrangements that minimise disruption and provide sufficient time to allow companies to adapt to a new business environment.

New disruptive customs barriers, port health controls and other costly bureaucratic requirements that impede the movement of goods and workers must be avoided.

They would disrupt established supply chain networks that operate across Ireland and Britain. They would also cause significant economic damage while adding to existing food price inflation faced by consumers.

The Republic of Ireland is by far the UK food and drink industry's longest-standing and most important trading partner. The relationship between the two nations is based on an integrated supply chain.

With these considerations in mind, we believe the UK government should make a clear and early statement of principle that it is committed to maintaining the current conditions of trade between the UK and Ireland and that it will make it a priority in the negotiations to come.

It is no more than our industry and - more importantly - our shoppers and customers deserve and demand. In the spirit of Samuel Beckett, we say to the UK government: "Find a form that accommodates this mess, that is your task now."

Ian Wright is director general of the UK's Food and Drink Federation

Irish Independent