Sam McBride: The Irish Sea border, my kids’ swing, and why supermarket food prices in NI are covertly soaring
Three weeks ago, and to the great delight of my children, we installed a swing in the garden.
However, within a couple of days the beautiful turf I had just laid was being ploughed to destruction underneath the swing.
At this point, you may think that I have lazily abandoned any attempt to analyse politics and instead am simply recounting my leisure time. But bear with me.
I searched on Google for a rubber mat with holes through which the grass could grow and it provided several websites selling a fairly simple standardised product. But from then on nothing was straightforward. The first website allowed me to get almost to the end of the process of buying a mat before saying that it doesn’t post to Northern Ireland. No problem. There are plenty more sellers.
The second website said that it was going to cost £28 to deliver a £22 product. Now I was getting frustrated.
The third website said delivery would be £27. More in hope than expectation, I tried a fourth website. It made the others look cheap – postage to NI was £30.
None of this was prominently advertised, meaning that the customer only realises late in the process – after checking each product’s specifications, entering a name, address, email address, and phone number.
I realised that the issue was the Irish Sea border which has introduced such bureaucracy for British firms selling to Northern Ireland that a growing number of them now either refuse to do so at all, or charge heavily to pass on the extra costs.
With Google defaulting to search UK websites, I then changed to search for mats from the Republic of Ireland. The first website quoted far more for the item – £45 for something half that price in England.
At last, I found an Irish firm which sold and delivered the mat for £25. It arrived within a couple of days and is under the swing, making me almost as happy as the children.
It is a example of the impact which the Northern Ireland Protocol – which creates the Irish Sea border – is having in the mundanest areas of life. I was particularly surprised because this is not a product of animal origin, it is not a plant, it is not banned from the EU, and it is not perishable. This is the easy part of trade between GB and NI, yet it is breaking down.
The EU say that this is due to a failure of the British Government to explain the protocol to British businesses and reassure them that they can continue to sell to NI. Unquestionably, the Prime Minister’s lies have confused the situation.
But the government is ploughing hundreds of millions of pounds into processes and schemes designed to smooth out these transactions. Despite that, trade is being seriously disrupted.
Some people will say that none of this matters because I was able to get the item. As we adapt, we may abandon even trying to buy from British websites and focus on Irish firms.
Even if there was no politics involved in that, it would have practical implications. Constraining choice means that competition is reduced, pushing up prices.
There are items which will not be available from the Republic’s far smaller market. Gardeners were among the first to realise this when the sea border was erected.
We can buy from other EU countries, but being in the single market is not the only consideration in doing so. Language is an inevitable barrier. Postage is another – there are inescapable geographical consequences of our place on the fringe of the EU.
There are other issues. Buying a product online from B&Q means that it can be returned in person to a B&Q store in Northern Ireland. That’s not possible with Bricomarché.
The protocol itself says that if it leads to “diversion of trade”, then either the UK or the EU can take unilateral action to address that problem.
On reflection, it is surprising that the EU agreed to such a low bar for triggering the most extreme option in the protocol, given that a diversion of trade was the inevitable consequence of the protocol.
Trade is like water: If there is an obstruction in one direction, it will flow somewhere else.
But the fact that the government knew this would happen, as its own documents from the time prove, is the greatest weakness in any attempt by Mr Johnson to deploy that argument.
Irritating as the refusal of British companies to sell to NI is, in some ways it is the more obvious aspect of how the protocol is hurting consumers.
A more discrete issue is emerging on supermarket shelves – and it is quietly hitting us in the pocket each week as we shop for food.
After the erection of the Irish Sea border in January, Sainsbury’s stopped stocking hundreds of products in its Northern Ireland stores and replaced them with locally-sourced alternatives, many of them Henderson Group items branded in the name of a rival supermarket, Spar.
That in itself implied an element of desperation. No supermarket likes to advertise a rival on its shelves.
But it was only last week that I noticed a trend involving several items where Sainsbury’s own brand and the Spar or Henderson products were side by side. In each instance, the Spar product was more expensive.
In most instances, this is not obvious even to an observant shopper because the old product is no longer stocked.
However, using Sainsbury’s website, I posed as a customer in Belfast and then as a customer in GB to analyse what it is charging shoppers in Northern Ireland for what are virtually identical products in GB.
I randomly selected 10 Spar food products for which I could easily find a Sainsbury’s own-brand equivalent (see the end of this article for the full list and prices).
Just 20% of the new items were cheaper (and not by much); 80% of the items are now more expensive. One item – mild French Brie – is three times more expensive for a Sainsbury’s customer in Belfast than it is for a Sainsbury’s customer in Edinburgh, Cardiff or London.
Overall, someone buying the ten products would have to spend 40% more than someone buying equivalent food in GB.
When asked why it has covertly increased its prices so substantially in Northern Ireland, Sainsbury’s said it stocked “a very tiny number of Spar products” as a contingency measure and that “prices fluctuate all the time for varying reasons”.
It is difficult to desegregate the generalised economic impact of Brexit, the implications of the NI Protocol or the consequences of the pandemic. However, in this instance the key distinction in the Irish Sea border – generalised Brexit disruption and the pandemic have not led to these prices surging in GB.
Some people simplistically see Irish Sea blockages as positive because local producers get more business. In some cases, this is a mirage – Henderson Group is a local company, but the Brie is still coming from France; it’s just that we’re paying three times as much for it to come by a less efficient route.
But even for local firms who manufacture their own products, while this aspect of the protocol is clearly helping them, some of them are finding difficulties importing raw materials or equipment.
There is a more fundamental problem for consumers. This trade blockage is great for the local person selling their products to supermarkets, but if they were cheaper then we would probably have been buying them already. Now we no longer have that choice.
This week Secretary of State Brandon Lewis told MPs: “We’ve got to get back to that situation where the products that are available in Northern Ireland – whether you’re a business or a consumer – are the products that you’ve always been able to access freely and flexibly, and they’re not unavailable...”
Mr Lewis, who infamously began the year by claiming that there was no Irish Sea border, is now well aware of how complicated, far-reaching and significant the trade blockages are.
His statement this week can only be accurate if huge chunks of the protocol are abandoned. Otherwise, he’s building up false hopes.
Price comparison of ten random Spar products sold by Sainsbury’s and equivalent Sainsbury’s own-brand products which they have replaced:
Now 32.6% dearer
Chilled tomato and mascarpone sauce
Sainsbury’s: £1.25/350g pot
Spar: £1.89/350g pot
Now 51.2% dearer
Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference pork sausages: £6.88/kg
Now 8.7% dearer
Mild French Brie
Now 204% dearer
Spinach & Ricotta Tortelloni
Now 43.2% dearer
Sainsbury’s: £1.20/300ml pot
Spar: £1/300ml pot
Now 16.6% cheaper
Now 7.5% cheaper
Now 47% dearer
Now 5% dearer
Now 36.2% dearer
UPDATE: While products have been disappearing from Sainsbury’s since January and my analysis found that their replacements were mostly more expensive, data analyst Peter Donaghy’s analysis of inflation data points to that being a problem with Sainsbury’s rather than one shared by all supermarkets in NI.
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