Brexit arrives but 'the unknown' still looms over Northern Ireland

Britain leaves the European Union today, and frustration over the potential impact of Brexit on trade is high throughout parts of Northern Ireland that have relied on the free flow of goods and people within the EU for decades.

Border checks on Irish Sea could make trade more complicated for businesses

Renee Filippone explains why the U.K.'s departure from the EU is raising uncertainty around what happens next with trade and Northern Ireland. 2:14

At a gas station on a highway between Belfast and Dublin, Gerry Campbell was fuelling up his truck and spilling his thoughts on the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

"They'll put the spanner in the works," said the trucker who believes politics and politicians are getting in the way of a Brexit solution that works for Northern Ireland. 

Campbell drives back and forth across the Irish border every day from his home near Belfast south into the Republic of Ireland.

"But it's not [the politicians] out there on the road doing this job. They go back to their office and they start complicating some other thing."

That level of frustration is echoed in parts of Northern Ireland that have relied on the free flow of goods and people within the European Union for decades. 

But as of 11 p.m. local time Friday, the U.K. will no longer be a part of the European Union, and the details about future trade agreements still need to be sorted out. 

Truck driver Gerry Campbell has spent 35 years hauling goods back and forth across the Irish border and believes politicians are getting in the way of a Brexit solution that works for Northern Ireland. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The Irish border was a sticking point during negotiations for the withdrawal agreement. There were concerns a hard land border on the island of Ireland could lead to cumbersome lineups, political unrest or even a return to violence. 

Instead British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's deal puts the border on the Irish Sea, essentially a border inside the U.K., where goods going between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be subject to checks. 

It would give the EU control over what is making it into Northern Ireland and possibly down to the Republic. 

"What we are going to be concerned about is what rules and regulations will be put in place," said Seamus Leheny, policy manager for the Freight Transport Association. "Worst-case scenarios if the system isn't robust and efficient, you can have a backlog of goods." 

The process will remain as it is now during the 11-month transition period but eventually there will likely be new checks and paperwork required at ports in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Leheny said those things take time and time costs money.

With thousands of vehicles carrying goods across the Irish border every day, this chunk of highway near the community of Newry in Northern Ireland is the busiest crossing. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"If it's going to cost more for companies in Great Britain to send goods to Northern Ireland, that means maybe consumers here will have to pay more for those products."

Business owner Paul Vallely worries international customers could stop buying from companies in Northern Ireland because of the complications. 

He owns Kukoon Rugs in Newry, near the Irish border. The family-owned business buys rugs from around the world and sells primarily to U.K. and EU markets. 

For him, the unknowns include tariffs and the process needed to import and export.

Seamus Leheny, policy manager for Northern Ireland's Freight Transport Association, says a border in the Irish Sea will create big challenges at Belfast Harbour Terminal, which sees about 500,000 trucks pass through every year. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"Customers could be put off buying from us if they're in Europe. They could be put off buying from a U.K.-based company just because of the unknown," said Vallely. "The sooner we can get the unknown out of the way the better we'll be able to trade as a business."

He said any downturn in sales could cost jobs. 

"That would be a bitter disappointment because we are genuinely a family-owned business and we treat everyone here like family."

Eamonn Connolly, managing director of the Newry Business Improvement District, suspects there will be an extension beyond the Dec. 31, 2020, deadline for the transition period to end.

Connolly, who works with hundreds of businesses that operate near the Irish border, said it's hard to believe the U.K. and the EU will be able to come up with a solution in 11 months and points to the fact it took seven years to negotiate the trade deal between Canada and the EU. 

"There have been more twists and turns in this journey than we could have expected," he said.. "I know there will be more and all we can try and do is be flexible and adapt to how it emerges."

The negotiations will likely be tense as the two sides try to find a compromise.

For months, Johnson has promised unfettered trade across the Irish Sea, with no customs forms or paperwork required.

"If somebody asks you to do that, tell them to ring up the prime minister and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin," Johnson was recording as saying at a Conservative Party event in November.

Rugs shipped to Europe make up about 20 per cent of the business at Paul Vallely's family-owned Kukoon Rugs in Newry. Vallely, right, fears added administrative costs because of Brexit. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

But that probably won't be the case if the U.K. wants a clean break from the EU customs union and single market 

"In the U.K., it seems that many still believe that you can leave the EU institutions, leave the biggest trading block in the world, depart from regulations that they helped to put in place, without experiencing any negative side-effects," Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, said at an event in Belfast earlier this week. 

"Northern Ireland will be a part of the U.K. most impacted by Brexit."  

Sitting in a coffee shop in Newry, Connolly said he hopes that when the politicians are at the negotiating table this year, they think about communities like his. 

"At the end of the day, we are a small part of a small island, on the edge of an island on the edge of Europe," he said. "Anything that brings on extra complexity or cost is not good for us."


About the Author

Renée is a CBC correspondent based in London, U.K. She has spent a decade with the organization in a number of roles, including senior business reporter, weekend news anchor, television and radio reporter, associate producer, program director and others.


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