Protecting trade with rest of UK after Brexit is our key priority, says top Northern Ireland businessman

Declan Billington, vice chair of Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, after an Institute of Directors meeting at Dale Farm in Belfast with the cabinet minister Brandon Lewis MP, who is also chairman of the Conservative Party. December 7 2018
Declan Billington, vice chair of Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, after an Institute of Directors meeting at Dale Farm in Belfast with the cabinet minister Brandon Lewis MP, who is also chairman of the Conservative Party. December 7 2018

Protecting UK trade is the key priority of a major sector of the Northern Ireland economy, one of the Province’s leading businessman has said.

Declan Billington, vice chair of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, was speaking to the News Letter on Friday after meeting a Cabinet minister who was in Belfast to sell the Brexit deal.

Brandon Lewis MP, minister without portfolio and chairman of the Conservative Party, with officials and business people at an Institute of Directors event at Dale Farm on Dargan Road, Belfast, on Friday December 7 2018

Brandon Lewis MP, minister without portfolio and chairman of the Conservative Party, with officials and business people at an Institute of Directors event at Dale Farm on Dargan Road, Belfast, on Friday December 7 2018

Mr Billington, who with other business leaders met Brandon Lewis MP at Dale Farm (see link to interview with Mr Lewis below), was asked by this newspaper why so many businesses had supported a Withdrawal Agreement that gives greater reassurance to Dublin with regard to cross-border trade than to Northern Ireland regarding cross-Irish Sea trade.

Mr Billington, who runs an animal feed company that feeds around a third of the farmers in Northern Ireland, said: “First and foremost our interest is in protecting UK trade. In agrifood 75% of our business is in the UK, 25% is rest of the world.

“There is a huge danger if we go for the 25 and don’t lock down the 75. We have been guaranteed in the backstop arrangement unfettered access to the UK.

“We’ve gone one further, we’ve engaged with the Cabinet Office, and with our local politicians, to look for statutory protections to ensure that trade from Northern Ireland into GB is in no way restricted or disadvantaged or prejudiced against in the UK single market.

“And I think it is important when our politicians argue for a better deal that the better deal could well be the statutory protections to make absolutely sure the vast majority of our trade is unaffected by the need for Northern Ireland to accept this position on behalf of the UK.”

Asked about the need to protect the reverse movements, the vast volume of trade coming into Northern Ireland, which will now be subject to checks if the backstop comes in, Mr Billington said: “The situation as it stands is that there will be no border inspections in respects of foods coming into Northern Ireland other than foods of animal origin, so your fridges, your cars, your duvets, all of those things will be in-market inspection, who does that?

“That will be done by the trading standards offices, so today we are living with people inspecting the consumer, tomorrow they will do the same job, they will be inspecting to the 300 European regulations that we’re tied to, not the 7,000 that we were tied to previously.

“In agrifood there is an inspection, it doesn’t have to be at the ports, it can be further away, that is still to be agreed.”

Mr Billington added: “Food products coming from New Zealand are about 1 or 2% inspection, that is one or two lorries in a hundred, and in all the hundreds of lorries coming across, they don’t all carry food of animal origin, so the level of inspection is low.

“I would actually say the second protection our politicians should be asking for is that the consumer does not bear any of the costs associated with these inspections.

“And do you not think the UK government can give that assurance? The inspection cost would be minimal, two or three lorries a day, but so what, get the statutory inspection so that the consumer in Northern Ireland does not suffer as a result of inspection costs.”

Mr Billington was then asked about the possibility that Great Britain might one day leave the customs union, while Northern Ireland was prevented from doing if the Irish vetoed it, meaning a tariff border in the Irish Sea in which businesses would have colluded by not opposing the backstop.

He replied: “The first thing is the backstop that you are referring to can be displaced, in whole or in part by a future trading agreement. The UK have talked about a close customs union, the only way the whole of the UK, with 45% of its business going to Europe, can protect against barriers to trade is to find a solution which is a customs union. Therefore the situation you have described will not happen.

“Secondly legislation was passed in London that means that Northern Ireland is part of the UK VAT territory, you cannot have any differences between Northern Ireland and GB in terms of VAT and VAT is part of the taxation system that is closely aligned to the likes of duty, so there is already statutory protections there, which was pushed through by the Brexiteers.

“So in all of this we actually don’t see the thing that you are worried about, because the future trading agreement is a customs union, the UK is tied to Northern Ireland in terms of the VAT regulations, which will in turn mean that you can’t have a fracturing of the customs on the Irish Sea.”

But we put to Mr Billington the notion that even so the government has cited the support of business in a deal that gives greater reassurance to cross-border than internal UK trade.

He said: “The intention was never to give reassurance in terms of UK versus Northern Ireland trade, the intention was to do the minimum necessary to avoid a hard physical border.

“So there are no reassurances for the services sector of Northern Ireland, which is about 70% of our GDP, so long and short of it is that minimum requirements to avoid physical checks at the Irish border but also by design to prevent the need to do disruptive checks in the Irish Sea as well, that is what the backstop is about.

“And a lot of our industry is not yet covered by either regulations or restrictions, because they are in the service sector and the service sector is not touched by the backstop arrangement.”

He added: “This was not a deal to sort out the financial viability of Northern Ireland, this was where Europe looked to put the minimum requirements on the deal to avoid checks at the Irish border, that’s all, because you don’t check services at the Irish border there are no benefits for the services sector of NI over GB.

“So this was never about looking after one region of the UK, it was about doing the minimum to avoid a border, and there is still a hell of a lot to play for for NI Plc in negotiating a future deal because the services sector have not been touched, addressed or any way preferred over the rest of the UK in the backstop.”

Friday’s meeting at Dale Farm was organised by the Institute of Directors. Its director in Northern Ireland, Kirsty McManus, said the deal “has huge implications for services, many of whom operate on an all-island basis, so practice in Republic of Ireland, recognition of judgements, those kind of things”.

She added: “So I think for us the Withdrawal Agreement is not ideal, we hope we get to a point where we don’t need the backstop and that we have a trade deal, let’s move on to that next stage, we need to move on to that next stage to unlock those negotiations now.

“Really important for us is to reinforce that no deal is not an option and cannot be an option because it is still being discussed at a UK level, for us that Brexit brinkmanship is very, very concerning because it shouldn’t be an option.”

Brandon Lewis: Backstop is only temporary

• See Morning View, page 18