Speaking at the Agricultural Science Association (ASA) conference, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney spoke of the audience needing no explanation of the benefit of the Northern Ireland (NI) protocol to agri-food trade on the island of Ireland.

He also spoke of his hopes on a compromise being reached between the UK and EU on the protocol, which also featured in a House of Lords committee this week, where the two sides of the problem were highlighted.

While Minister Coveney spoke of the need for an arrangement to protect the single market, interestingly, he added that goods destined for NI only coming in from Britain could be “subject to a different risk management system” from goods for onward movement to the Republic of Ireland and the EU.

This is essentially the red and green lane theme or even an extension of dual regulatory theme that is proposed in the UK government legislation that would override the protocol.


It is also striking that the new prime minister has so far not made any belligerent comment about the EU relationship.

There is a possibility that this suggests that she will adopt a more pragmatic approach to the protocol than her previous comments would suggest.

Taking a different approach would make economic sense, given the huge financial commitment she has made in capping energy costs and the borrowing implications that will have for the UK treasury.

Neither the UK nor EU need a trade war given the current conditions prevailing with energy costs across Europe.

For a deal to be reached, there are realities that have to be recognised by both the UK and EU.

For the EU, protection of the single market is sacrosanct, but the reality is that the current rules structure simply isn’t fit for purpose for dealing with inter-state trade, as in the case between Britain and NI.

It is a case of a sledge hammer being used to smash a nut, but, so far, there is no alternative to the sledge.

Creative ambiguity

The challenge now is to find an alternative. Technology and information sharing prior to dispatch can have a role in the risk assessment process and the objective has to be prevention of unauthorised product from Britain accessing the EU via NI.

Achieving this parallel to supermarkets being able to service their NI stores from a supply depot in Britain will be the key to solving the issue and if this is mutually accepted in principle, then it is only a case of negotiating the detail - though that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Of course, the reality is that a big part of the problem is the political hostility to the principle of NI being different from the rest of the UK.

In practice, achieving a mutually agreed solution will mean that the single market won’t be as perfectly protected as the EU might wish, nor will NI have the complete integration with the rest of the UK that the pure Brexiteer would prefer.

Getting this outcome will protect the business that Lakeland CEO Michael Hanley referred to in his evidence to the House of Lords committee this week.

That has to be protected at all costs, as does cross-border trade in sheep, cattle and pigs, as well as meat.

If agreement cannot be found, all this trade is in jeopardy, with a cost that would exceed €1bn, falling mainly on farmers, and a cost that not only doesn’t make sense, but is unaffordable and avoidable.

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