Agenda item


            The Chairperson welcomed Mr. A. Connolly, Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC), to the meeting.


            Mr. Connolly provided an update on key issues within the business sector related to the Northern Ireland Protocol and informed the Committee that he had met with Maros Sefcovic, European Commission Vice-President, during his visit to the Northern Ireland. 


            He reported that the UK Government and European Commission were increasingly working together to find solutions to the problems that were being experienced, with the EU keen to focus on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules, customs and representation.  He added that there were additional areas which the UK Government wished to review, including veterinary medicines and tariff rate quotas (TRQs) on building supplies. 


            He pointed out that dual market access was a real opportunity for Northern Ireland as an economy, offering the chance to act as a hub for adding value to imports via manufacturing or food production etc., which would lead to better, more well paid jobs, which in turn would bring about positive outcomes in the retail and service sectors as household incomes increased. 


            Mr. Connolly confirmed that, during the meetings with the European Commission, topics of discussion had included local issues related to SPS, logistics, manufacturing, farming and governance, the need for an implementation period to be provided irrespective of what solutions were proposed and the importance of working with local businesses and utilising their expertise.   He added that it was important to note the positives that had emerged, including an increase in manufacturing and agri-food contracts.


            He stated that he was increasingly optimistic as a result of recent conversations, however, there were still areas to work through, which to be effective, would require a bespoke solution for Northern Ireland that offered stability, certainty, simplicity and affordability.  He suggested that the solution would be a UK-EU veterinary agreement which would remove a great deal of the paperwork and costs, while keeping business competitive. 


            In conclusion, he underlined the need for political will to deliver the solutions and advised that political instability was the biggest pull away from investment in a region. 


            A Member pointed to the increased imports and exports between the North and South of Ireland and questioned how such positive outcomes could be better promoted.  Mr. Connolly advised that there had been a number of positive investments as a result of the NI protocol, with further on the horizon, labour shortages in the manufacturing sector, a lack of HGV drivers and TRQs relating to various alloys needed to be resolved to enable further growth. 


            During discussion, the Committee raised a number of further queries regarding paperwork requirements, pet passports, food shortages and the supply of medication.


            Mr. Connolly confirmed that there had been concerns in the business community about additional paperwork that would commence following the end of the current grace periods, however, that had now been extended indefinitely.  He added that work was ongoing to simplify the processes by digitising some elements and he undertook to update the Committee once the proposed solutions had been finalised.  He also confirmed that the extension of the grace periods applied to pet passports, and so no change was expected on this issue, and undertook to find out how many passports were issued before the extension. 


            With regards to food supplies, he suggested that certain retailers were more exposed to shortages than others, dependent on where their food was processed, however, both Governments were accepting that work needed to be done to resolve issues surrounding sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) products. 


            The Committee was advised that the EU Commission had published a non-paper on the supply of medicine in early July, 2021, and that discussions were ongoing.  Mr. Connolly suggested that progress was being made in this area and the importance of the issue was well understood by both the UK Government and EU Commission.  


            With regards to supply lines, a Member asked whether it was possible to separate the impact of Brexit from the impact of Covid-19 so as to understand whether the situation would elevate as the pandemic eased.  Mr. Connolly explained that there were 4 elements to consider; Brexit, the Protocol, Covid-19 and global supply chains and that, currently, it was difficult to disaggregate between them.   He added that one of the biggest issues with the Protocol had been a lack of education about trading with Northern Ireland, in comparison to the UK. 


            In closing, Mr. Connolly reported that engagement from both Governments had been increasing in recent months, however, friction continued with regards to ideology and economics.  He also encouraged Members of the Committee to contact him should they have any further queries.  


            Following discussion, the Committee thanked Mr. Connolly for his presentation and he retired from the meeting.