Sam McBride: Just weeks away, the Irish Sea border is going to hit our pockets – but also reshape the Union
Such a view is understandable because although the UK voted to leave the EU four and a half years ago, despite all the political turmoil and hyperbole little has changed for most of us.
There has been no economic collapse as a result (unlike the pandemic, where cause and effect are immediate), the shelves are not bare and violence has not broken out in the streets.
Even those who attempt to follow the incessantly meandering negotiations between London and Brussels could be forgiven for thinking that this is a classic example of a story from the political bubble which, while it matters, has scant direct impact on the lives of most people.
But this week we saw some of the first direct impact of how the Irish Sea border on our lives – and what is now a trickle of cost and bureaucracy is likely to soon be a flood.
We are now finally just weeks away from the point at which Brexit becomes reality. Although the UK formally left the EU on January 31, that was only a technical departure because it was followed by an 11-month transition period where little changed – a period in which to resolve the remaining questions around areas as diverse as fishing rights, financial services and trade.
In 69 days’ time, the current honeymoon period of the post-Brexit transition will end. But even before that point has arrived, changes are happening.
This week the academic Dr Viviane Gravey was among the Northern Irish customers of Welsh gardening company Real Seeds who received an email from the firm to say: “Sadly, due to the way that the new UK seed laws will come into play next year, we will not be able to ship seed to Northern Ireland, as it will not be possible for us (or any GB seed company) to issue a plant passport suitable for posting seed to NI”.
Another company, the Agroforestry Research Trust, issued a similar note saying that it would no longer sell plants to Northern Ireland.
This week also saw major food manufacturers write to the government to warn that they may stop selling some products in Northern Ireland as a result of the new border because GB companies will now be at a disadvantage to their EU rivals. The Food and Drink Federation said that the new border “threatens to undermine the viability of the Northern Ireland market altogether for businesses operating in Great Britain” and that “the added cost, complexity and trade friction this inevitably creates means it will no longer be practical for many of our businesses to supply goods from GB for sale in the Northern Ireland market”.
Last week BBC Spotlight broadcast an insightful programme by John Campbell – a journalist who demonstrably understands Brexit better than the vast majority of our politicians – which set out the practical implications of the Irish Sea border.
He explained that when goods come to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, in legal terms it will be as though they are entering the EU from a foreign country and that any animal product – from cheese to fish to mince – will now have to have an Export Health Certificate which can only be filled out by trained vets.
The cost of getting such a form completed for even a relatively simple product such as a single block of cheese could cost £50, Spotlight reported - and every product will need a certificate every time it travels.
Aodhán Connolly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, which represents major supermarkets and other retailers, told the programme that this could mean tens of thousands of pounds being added to the cost of every load coming across the Irish Sea to fill supermarket shelves.
That could lead to two outcomes, he said – either prices increasing, or supermarkets pulling out of a market which is too expensive and cumbersome.
In recent months, the DUP has appeared alive to that problem, with Arlene Foster and senior party colleagues referring on multiple occasions to the imperative that Brexit does not damage consumer choice or increase prices.
Another possibility would be supermarkets such as Tesco continuing to trade in Northern Ireland, but stocking their shelves with products from Tesco Ireland rather than GB – because trading across the Irish border would be seamless, while trading with GB would be expensive and bureaucratic.
As the new border looms, claims that it does not affect Northern Ireland’s constitutional position are increasingly hard to sustain – and unionist opposition to such a border is becoming more clearly coherent.
What does Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK actually mean if many of its laws are not be set in London or Belfast, but in Brussels, and if the impact of that is to discourage trade within the UK and encourage trade with the Republic and the rest of the EU?
The new border will also impact something as mundanely everyday as internet shopping because from January 1, all commercial goods coming into Northern Ireland from GB – including internet shopping – will need a customs declaration.
A government-funded ‘trader support service’ to effectively cover the cost of those customs forms will last for two years – but whether it continues will be at the whim of the government.
One does not have to be a constitutional scholar to see that all of this is making Northern Ireland a place still further apart from the rest of the UK.
It is profoundly ironic that Northern Ireland is being cut off from the rest of the UK in its centennial year, and that such economic damage is being knowingly wrought in a year where plans are being crafted to use the centenary to promote Northern Ireland globally as a place to do business.
It will be all the more baffling to future historians that the main unionist party – but in truth, many unionists from all parties – eagerly endorsed the decision to leave the EU without which this point could not have arrived.
It is not that there were not coherent arguments in favour of leaving the EU - there were many.
But even many of the benefits of Brexit will not apply to Northern Ireland. As former UUP leader Robin Swann has said, Northern Ireland is not really leaving the EU.
In fact, the issue which polling has shown was the most important to the Brexit vote – regaining sovereignty to allow for democratic accountability of those who make our law – will not only not come to Northern Ireland, but we will now face an even less democratic regime. Northern Ireland will still be bound by EU laws, but now without any say democratic say in those rules. It will be regulation without representation.
Those who voted to get rid of red tape, will find more red tape. Those who thought it would make Northern Ireland more British, will find it less British.
Until now, Brexit has for most people been fairly intangible, but the reality will become increasingly clear over coming weeks.
The public are rightly sceptical about some of the scare stories about Brexit. But every time a voter is faced with a message on their computer screen that an item cannot be delivered to Northern Ireland, or every time they realise that a product is either no longer in the shops or has soared in price, it will be a reminder of how political decisions have impact on our lives.
Who will the public blame? Do they blame the EU, or Boris Johnson, or pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland who argued against these border checks taking place at the land border itself, necessarily shifting them to ports and airports?
Or do they blame the DUP as the main party which not only campaigned for Brexit itself without a plan for how it would be implemented, but then had unprecedented influence over the government during the key period in which the terms of the UK’s departure were being negotiated?
If Brexit means we all pay more, while struggling to see the benefits, and pushes us towards all-island harmonisation in myriad areas, what will that do for the DUP in the short term and for the Union in the longer term?
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