Brexit: a boon and a bane for N.Irish businesses
Dunmurry (United Kingdom) (AFP) – In a factory in Dunmurry on the edge of Belfast, black and green boxes of ventilation systems destined for Poland are piled high, each bearing the European energy label.
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The EU member state is Brookvent's largest market, despite the UK's departure from the bloc and disputes about post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Irish businesses still have one foot in the European single market.
"We find ourselves in a unique position and having a foot in both camps is a great competitive advantage," Brookvent's managing director Declan Gormley told AFP.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, designed to govern trade in the British province and recognise its special status, has been a thorn in the side of EU-UK relations since January.
The agreement is designed to avoid the return of a physical border with Ireland -- a key part of the 1998 peace deal that ended violence over British rule in Northern Ireland.
To prevent unchecked goods heading into the single market via EU member Ireland, checks were agreed on goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Great Britain.
Pro-British unionist parties, though, fear it drives a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and brings the republican goal of a united Ireland closer.
But for Northern Irish businesses exporting to the EU, it gives them an edge over their rivals in England, Scotland and Wales.
"We have access to a market of over half a billion people," said Gormley.
In contrast, UK competitors are restricted to a domestic market of 70 million, and face "administrative hoops" to be able to trade with the EU, he added.
"We don't have those difficulties, so clearly that is quite a significant advantage," he said.
Brookvent's position is not unique: Stephen Kelly, head of the industry body Manufacturing NI, said 80 percent of the province's manufacturing sector back the protocol.
Those opposed tend to be those with no EU trading links and who only bring goods back and forth across the Irish Sea from Great Britain.
Increased customs controls since Brexit took full effect on January 1 this year have meant more paperwork for those businesses.
Northern Ireland initially saw empty shelves and shortages, prompting the UK government in London to extend grace periods for certain products, such as food and medicines.
Around the port of Larne, one of the region's commercial gateways, the opposition is clear. Signs read "No Irish Sea border" and "EU hands off Ulster".
Robin Mercer, who owns the Hillmount Garden Centre chain, said he now has to juggle 120 different forms just to get roses and potatoes from Great Britain.
"Luckily enough, we have got good suppliers in Great Britain who have worked with us and they are still working with us," he said.
But other suppliers have thrown in the towel because of the increased red tape.
Since Brexit, the plants that line Mercer's shelves are now more likely to come from Ireland than the neighbouring island across the sea.
"You'll see the EU symbol on them," he says, pointing at a table of rhododendrons. "These are actually coming from Belgium."
"It would be lovely to see the protocol gone," he said but as London tries to persuade Brussels to renegotiate its terms, Mercer would settle for simpler rules.
- EU trade up -
Some 40 kilometres (25 miles) away in Craigavon, forklift trucks methodically load 2,000 pallets of foodstuffs into lorries at Derry Refrigerated Transport.
The company has seen its shipments to distribution centres across the island of Ireland increase by a third since January because of higher demand from local supermarkets.
"For years and years, there were supermarkets bringing in fruit, vegetables and other types of products" from the rest of the UK, said joint managing director Fiona Derry.
"But they suddenly realised the benefit of having the local supply chain in order to ensure that product was on the shelves."
Derry's main problem now is finding labour, as tighter post-Brexit immigration rules have made it harder to recruit European workers.
Manufacturing NI's Kelly said sales to Ireland are up 60 percent as the region's economy bounces back from the coronavirus pandemic.
"Buyers have moved away from England, Scotland, Wales and have come to Northern Ireland instead and that's hugely positive for us," he said.
But with a shared supply chain, history, culture, currency, legal system and language, there is no danger of cutting ties completely, he said.
"The rest of the UK will continue to be an incredibly important centre of distribution for us."
© 2021 AFP