When it comes to Brexit on the island of Ireland, the optics matter. And in the last couple of weeks, they haven’t been great.
Supermarket shelves sitting empty in the North; log-jammed lorry parks in the South.
A piece of Brexit paperwork — the Northern Ireland protocol — is to blame. Designed to avoid the return of commercial checkpoints across the island, the protocol sees Northern Ireland remain aligned with the EU single market, allowing goods to pass freely to-and-from the Irish Republic.
The catch: an effective customs border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland down the Irish Sea. This has slowed — and in some cases, curtailed — the flow of deliveries to Belfast, Ballymena, and beyond. At Dublin Port, through which a significant chunk of the North’s trade passes, freight is moving at a glacial pace.
A catalogue of new documentary checks lurk behind the slowdown. With Brexit, UK businesses selling to the EU (and vice versa) must make import and security declarations, confirming the origin of their products. The frictionless trade that has underpinned UK-Ireland commerce for a quarter-century is well and truly gone.
When it comes to the movement of food, this is particularly true. Items of plant and animal origin are subject to an added layer of regulatory checks, with veterinary inspectors required to certify a consignment’s contents. This can be a cumbersome process — hence the sorry sight of empty supermarket shelves.
It is but “teething problems,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson; a slightly rough ride in the first official fortnight of Brexit.
The UK’s top supermarket chains don’t exactly agree. An “urgent intervention” is needed to prevent further disruption to Northern Ireland’s food supply, the heads of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Iceland, Co-Op and Marks & Spencer told the government this week.
There are particular concerns around what happens in April when more strenuous tests on food and agricultural products come into force. At that juncture, it may prove uneconomic for stores to operate in Northern Ireland, raising the spectre of price hikes, or even closures.
That seems unlikely, though — the Brexit process has been pockmarked with challenges, but a solution is almost always found. Indeed, though unsettling, the reports of empty shelves weren’t ubiquitous, and it seems shoppers weren’t put at too great an inconvenience.
But the episode belies a deeper issue.
Ireland, commercially speaking, is no longer split North-South but East-West, with a line drawn between the island and Great Britain. That’s hugely symbolic.
While Brexit has undoubtedly inflamed age-old political divides in Ireland, there’s little question that the island is now more economically united than at any other time in the last century.
Small wonder the co-ruling Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — who, this year, will celebrate one hundred years of Northern Ireland’s continued place within the UK — was incandescent at the supermarket debacle.
“[The protocol] has ruined trade in Northern Ireland and it’s an insult to our intelligence to say it’s a teething problem,” fumed DUP lawmaker Ian Paisley Jr in parliament on Wednesday.
His party is pushing for the activation of Article 16 — a safeguard that allows the UK (or EU) to act unilaterally if measures imposed as a result of the protocol are deemed to be causing “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”. The government has said it won’t hesitate to do so if required, but argues that there hasn’t yet been the need.
Northern Ireland’s Nationalist movement would tend to agree. Triggering Article 16 would be reckless, senior Sinn Féin figures have said, while Stephen Farry, deputy leader of the Alliance Party, this week dismissed DUP fears that schools and hospitals might face food shortages as “scaremongering on steroids”.
Whether that’s right or wrong — and even if commercial hurdles are cleared in the coming months — Brexit’s constitutional ramifications for Ireland are gathering pace.