The order to cease work on permanent inspection facilities at Northern Ireland (NI) ports is strong on symbolism but has no impact on the operation of the protocol which governs trade.

It is clear that the Unionist parties have now moved to a position where they want to remove the protocol in its entirety rather than work to improve its operation.

However, that is extremely unlikely because the NI Assembly will not have a vote on accepting or rejecting the protocol until 2024. In the meantime, operation of the protocol, like all of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the EU and UK, will be administered by the joint partnership, advised by the supporting technical committees.

The move by the UK to unilaterally extend the grace period for introduction of controls may cause tension with the EU but ultimately both need the agreement to work.

Making it work

Aside from the political sensitivities of operating a border control point to administer EU controls, flexible implementation is required to enable the continued functioning of trade. The EU model for managing external borders is based on large-volume business-to-business transactions. It was never intended as a model to manage the movement of multiple transactions of consumer goods and that has to change to address the reality of the UK being outside the EU and part of the UK sharing a border with an EU member.

The neatest way to achieve this is at the points of entry to the island of Ireland with a level of sensitivity in Northern Ireland that reflects its unique position of being geographically attached to the EU while constitutionally part of the UK.

Practical solutions

There have been positive noises from Brussels in recent days about achieving a reset in relations with the UK. Similarly, there have been suggestions from the Ulster Farmer’s Union and at one point from Minister Edwin Poots about the merits of remaining aligned with the EU on veterinary issues in the way that Switzerland is.

The move on Wednesday afternoon to extend the grace period for goods entering NI from Britain was initiated by the UK

This would be ideal as it would remove the need for the expensive and cumbersome veterinary certification. It would also accommodate the continued sale of English sausages in NI and the EU as well as solving the problems the fishing industry has in exporting to the EU.

The move on Wednesday afternoon to extend the grace period for goods entering NI from Britain was initiated by the UK. This needs to be agreed with the EU ideally as part of a wider veterinary agreement that enables Irish exports flow to the Britain without certificates and indeed British exports enter the rest of the EU as well. This can be part of a more settled arrangement that solves a series of movement problems for so long as the UK is aligned with the EU on standards.

Problems for British exporters

The cost of veterinary certification and 30% physical inspections, currently an issue in trade between Britain and NI, is about to become an issue for Irish exporters to Britain as well. So far the UK hasn’t implemented the new arrangements but is due to require veterinary certification from 1 April and begin physical inspections from 1 July. Irish processors have been flagging to farmers that these are going to add costs to doing business, implying that there will be an impact on farmgate prices.

Nick Allen of the British meat exporters association spoke of it being like a return to the 1950s

Evidence given to the EFRA committee of the UK parliament this week suggests that veterinary certification requirements have decimated exports from Britian to the EU for fish and all types of meat. Nick Allen of the British meat exporters association spoke of it being like a return to the 1950s. If it is a problem for Britain with a relatively small proportion of exports, it will be a nightmare for Ireland given the level of our exports to Britain.

These views from the British meat and fish industries suggests that a Swiss-type alignment would find favour there too.

Ideal outcome

Getting this type of veterinary agreement is the ultimate settled position for trade in goods of animal and plant origin, not just between Britain and NI but between Britain and the rest of the EU. It would enable small exporters function in the way that they had become accustomed to while the UK was part of the single market. Farmers and the food industry are supportive and if the red tape and inspections were to virtually disappear at entry points to NI, political tensions would also reduce as the functioning of trade returned to something similar to what it was previously.

Northern Ireland may be just a small piece in the overall TCA between the EU and UK but the full picture isn’t complete until every piece of the jigsaw is slotted into place.