GB-to-NI potato blockade ‘will hurt quality of Ulster chip shops’

Fears have been voiced that English-grown potatoes will be effectively off the menu in Northern Ireland within days, unless a specific deal on tubers if hammered out by the UK government.
A lorry belonging to Brendan Donnelly’s firm delivering to a greengrocer’s shop in north Belfast recentlyA lorry belonging to Brendan Donnelly’s firm delivering to a greengrocer’s shop in north Belfast recently
A lorry belonging to Brendan Donnelly’s firm delivering to a greengrocer’s shop in north Belfast recently

Long-time potato merchant Brendan Donnelly made the comments as the end of the transition period next Friday looms – and he was backed up by DUP farming figure William Irwin, who echoed the same worries about a “crazy” de facto blockade on GB potatoes.

Both men said the issue is particularly important for traditional fish-and-chip shops, because the best potatoes to fry by far are not Irish-grown ones, but ones from warmer climes such as East Anglia.

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But each of them voiced concern that potatoes which have not been scrubbed clean and have traces of earth on them will fall foul of the EU standards which NI must adhere to, in order to avoid cross-border trade disruption with the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Donnelly, a 62-year-old father of two, runs the Portglenone business James Donnelly & Sons, founded by his now-deceased father.

“It is going to affect the traditional fish and chip shop,” he said, adding that if his own business closes alone it will put up to 40 workers directly out of a job.

He said the government’s three-month “grace period”, allowing “authorised traders such as supermarkets and their trusted suppliers” to continue trade as normal even after January 1, does not apply to businesses like his.

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“It’s very, very sad. It shouldn’t be happening, because we’re in Britain,” he said.

“I’ve been through all the Troubles. I’ve had lorries blown up in the middle of Belfast. I’ve done everything in my time.

“I’m not bringing religion or politics into it.

“I just thought in my own head that I’m ok here now this time – they’ll bring the British potatoes into the six counties, British, and that’ll move fine.

“But there they go – they’ve just nailed us overnight.”

Unusual though it may seem, the island of Ireland imports 60,000 tonnes of potatoes like Maris Pipers and Marquis from Great Britain each year, he said – adding chip shops will just not be able to find similar quality frying spuds either in Ireland or EU suppliers like the Dutch.

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Mr Donnelly added: “The future of our industry is extremely uncertain. Overnight this industry could potentially be non-existent. Unlike other companies importing meat, plants, and dairy products the trade of potatoes has not been granted any grace period.

“As a result, our staff of 40 plus employees, including third-generation family members, who are trying to look forward to Christmas, may ultimately not have a job to return to in the New Year”

William Irwin, DUP member of Stormont’s agriculture committee and a farmer himself (mainly beef and dairy), told the News Letter that bringing in scrubbed-clean potatoes from GB, instead of uncleaned ones, is not an option because it drastically reduces shelf life.

“Most of the chip ships in Northern Ireland must fry English potatoes because they’re drier – I’m told maybe 90% of chip shops fry English potatoes,” he said – adding that it is “ridiculous” to inhibit the trade in such varieties.

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“I think it’s crazy. We hope at the highest level that common sense will prevail on this issue,” he concluded.

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Alistair Bushe