Good to hear an NI business leader talk about crucial UK trade

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

In his interview with this newspaper on page 6, Declan Billington gives one of the most impressive explanations to date of why many businesses are supporting the government in its Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Mr Billington, who is vice chair of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, does not seem thrilled with the deal, and he wants further reassurance from government.

It is encouraging to hear him make a point that has not been made loudly enough by the business community: that in securing ease of trade across the Irish border we must not lose sight of the importance of the much larger amount of trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

As Mr Billington says, there will still be free-flowing movement of goods from NI to GB, and there will be free-flowing movement of many types of goods the other way. But not all.

He is entirely right to call for politicians to push for statutory protections to ensure that the vast majority of trade across the Irish Sea remains unaffected.

The problem, though, is greater than that.

The immediate problem for businesses of course is the fact of checks and fact of inconvenience and burdens or restrictions on movements. The problem for the country at large, though, is not checks. It is the implications of divergence within the UK in terms of regulatory standards and perhaps, one day, customs zones.

After all, the Irish government has made precisely the same point in reverse. It is not merely placated by a lack of physical checks, it is rejecting any customs or regulatory divergence at the land border, even in the absence of checks.

To an alarming extent, the British government has sought to meet those concerns, such that it has given an open ended commitment of regulatory and customs convergence across the border, over the same commitment across the Irish Sea.

In doing so, it affords greater protection to a smaller amount of North-South trade over East-West. That is a key reason why the PM’s deal is unacceptable.