“YouThe uncertainty was the biggest challenge. So this is good progress,” says Andrew Lynas, of the new deal reached on Monday between the UK and the EU to try to end the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol.
For the managing director of Lynas Foodservice, a family business from Coleraine, the post-Brexit trade deal has given him serious headaches. But what he sees as far more important than the tons of additional paperwork, costs and broken relationships with English suppliers is the lifting of the political storm.
“Stability and certainty are big ticks for us as a company. At least if our suppliers, whether they are in Birmingham or France, know what the reality of dealing with us is, then we can move forward.”
After Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen agreed on the new ‘Windsor brake’ update to trade rules on Monday, businesses across Northern Ireland welcomed the developments that were they were achieving.
In a statement, the 14 largest business groups in the region praised the “considerable efforts” on both sides, while calling on them to continue working together to help companies adapt.
Lynas Foodservice is perhaps the perfect case study for the trade break between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK; is the largest family-owned food provider on the island of Ireland, sending over 3,000 deliveries a day to pubs, cafes and restaurants in the region, as well as Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.
The costs and complexity of doing business have skyrocketed since Boris Johnson’s 2020 Brexit deal, which, despite promises to the contrary, led to some checks on goods arriving from Britain. “There are a couple of people in this business that exist because of that complexity and paperwork,” Lynas says.
“There was a cost and the fear of ‘how do I deal with a supplier from Northern Ireland?’ and if it will change in a few months”.
However, the company, with 700 employees and a turnover of £180m a year, has worked its way through the headaches, while Lynas says that commitment, minimizing stress and functioning of society are much more important. “Unfortunately, we’ve had much worse battles in Northern Ireland than protocol, so we’ve figured out how to deal with it,” he says.
“The most important thing to me is that we need Stormont up and running. As a businessman, as someone in society, we just need a government that works. I just hope and pray that that’s what we get out of this.”
“Now common sense has prevailed,” says Michael McGrath, owner of Crushing Screening Parts, a small business that sells auto parts from rural County Derry to countries around the world. “Thank God the adults are back at 10 Downing Street. It has been a long saga of disputes, disagreements, arguments and consequences that have helped no one.”
He says his business has benefited from the protocol, effectively keeping Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods. “Northern Ireland Protocol sales to the UK and EU remain duty-free,” reads a sign in his email signature, in a sentiment shared by many business people, but not all.
“I don’t think much has changed. As long as there are no changes to single market access, the rest is just noise.”
Declan Gormley, managing director of Brookvent, which exports hundreds of ventilation products from its Belfast base to the Republic of Ireland, the rest of the UK and the EU, takes a similar view. “For some people it is anathema. But the truth is, we have the best of both worlds,” he says.
“We continue our relationship with the UK and with the EU market. We have grown significantly over the last decade because of the ability to access the EU and to be able to expand into Poland and other countries. It has worked very well for us.”
Still, smoothing the region’s troubled political waters is a key priority, made possible recently by “a much more concerted effort” in Westminster and Brussels to overcome obstacles. “Previously we had prime ministers who would show up and promise no checks, or tell people they would break the deal and throw it away. All of that was completely misleading and gave people the completely wrong perspective,” says Gormley.
“We want a good relationship with our neighbours, whether in England, Scotland and Wales, or in Europe. It doesn’t help anyone to have an antagonistic relationship.”
What is certain, however, is that there is still progress to be made. Business leaders from the 14 major industry groups say the details of the Windsor deal will still need to be scrutinized, while bosses said the DUP’s reaction will be important.
“Since Northern Ireland is Northern Ireland, I could wake up tomorrow and say to you: ‘All we talked about? Forget it.’ You just don’t know,” Gormley says.
“But I’m hopeful that now we’re on the road to some kind of resolution where everyone can feel like they’ve gotten something and can move on to more positive things.”