Leinster House 21st of September 2022

In light of the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I wanted to take this opportunity on behalf of our members, our board and our executive to offer our condolences to the British members of the Assembly and the British people that you represent.

We wish to pay tribute to Her late Majesty’s lifelong devotion to public service and her commitment to reconciliation, while also wishing His Majesty King Charles III well as he begins his reign. The Chamber takes great pride that our foundation in 2011 was inspired by Her late Majesty’s historic visit to Ireland, an occasion that marked a new era in UK-Irish relations. For our part, we will continue to strive to fulfil the promise of our foundation -to maximise the trading, economic and cultural ties between the UK and Ireland.

Context

This is the last body I need to sell the importance of the British Irish relationship to, but it’s worth recapping a couple of remarkable statistics that underline the importance of this relationship. Exports from the UK to Ireland support 500,000 British jobs and Irish companies employ over 150,000 people in Britain. UK Foreign Direct Investment into Ireland is approximately €60bn annually while Irish FDI to the UK is over €90bn annually.

Our sole focus at the Chamber is to support and grow this trade, clearly so important to the people and economies of the two islands. We are a member led organisation, comprised of the businesses that account for a majority of this trade, and we hear first-hand, on a weekly basis, the challenges and opportunities that present themselves as our trading relationship evolves, naturally and as a result of Brexit.

Our Member’s Outlook on UK-Ireland Trade

Our members have consistently told us that uncertainty over the Protocol has impacted their willingness to invest in areas of their business focused on GB/Ireland trade, especially in Northern Ireland. That said, trade between the two islands has rebounded strongly post-pandemic and post-Brexit in ONS and CSO statistics, figures which our own survey of members supports.

 

50% of our members surveyed are optimistic about the future of UK-Ireland trade, with 20% being pessimistic. 52% of those surveyed expected to do more trade across the two islands in the next five years, with 10% expecting to do less trade. There was a disparity between those surveyed on the impact that Brexit has had on their trade, with proportionally three times as many British based businesses recording a Significantly Negative impact on their business from Brexit.

The Protocol and the Protocol Bill

Needless to say, the threat which most imperils this relationship is the fallout from the ongoing dispute between the EU and the UK over the Northern Ireland Protocol. We acknowledge that the Protocol is not perfect, however we condemn the UK’s unilateral action to disapply it.

In 2020, The Chamber welcomed the agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol. It is our view, that while being far from perfect, the Protocol offers a pathway for Northern Irish businesses to maintain their trade with Ireland, Great Britain and the EU’s Single Market. The UK’s NI Protocol Bill threatens to unilaterally shred the Protocol rather than trying to find solutions to make this negotiated settlement work for the people of Northern Ireland.

Our ongoing communications with our members and associate organisations North, South, East and West overwhelmingly portray an exasperation with both the unilateral nature of the Bill and the content of it. Some aspects of the Bill are completely unworkable, such as the proposed ‘dual regulation’ regime for agri-food producers. The burden of compliance and regulation for both the producer and regulators would decimate the farming industry in Northern Ireland and is a regime that would be impossible for DEFRA or DAERA to monitor or certify. It would increase levels of bureaucracy to unmanageable levels.  NI producers would become uncompetitive by having to choose one set of regulations, halving the size of the market available to them with the same choice and consequences faced by suppliers all the way down their complex supply chains.

Dual regulation is an attempt to solve the real issue of the difficulty of bringing certain goods into NI from GB, with a misguided technical solution. This is a real-world example of the Bill creating more issues than it resolves. These issues need to be settled through negotiations over unilateral action.

The Chamber’s Suggested Solutions to the Protocol Impasse

The Chamber, drawing from the input of our members, has consistently called for practical solutions to the issues around the protocol that we face. We believe that the following three actions by the EU and the UK, through negotiations, would go a long way to addressing a majority of these issues.

These are:

  1. An agreement by the EU to the request to designate greater responsibilities to the Specialised Committee on the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both the EU and UK have already mandated the Joint Committee to address any issues with the implementation of the Protocol. However, it must be strengthened and empowered to react to the needs of business, to simplify processes and to identify the necessary mitigations and derogations needed to ensure the freest possible flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
  1. An agreement by the UK to enter into talks to negotiate a Veterinary Agreement with the EU. This would eliminate the need for a majority of SPS checks. A call to this end has also been made by British seafood, dairy and meat associations in recent weeks.
  1. The introduction of a green lane/red lane approach for non-SPS goods entering Northern Ireland, significantly reducing the bureaucratic burden on British exporters to Northern Ireland, alleviating some of the greatest concerns surrounding the Protocol.

The Wider UK-Ireland Relationship

To grow the economic and cultural relationship between the UK and Ireland the chamber has consistently advocated for the following:

 

Shared Islands Fund

To strengthen the trading and cultural relationship between the UK and Ireland, the Chamber has suggested that the two Governments come together to develop a Shared Islands Fund. Based off the successful model of the Shared Island Fund which fosters collaboration across the border on the Island of Ireland, this new fund would crowd-in investment and encourage UK – Ireland collaborations in areas such as Energy and Research, strengthening ties across the two islands at a time where relationships are not as strong as they have been in the recent past. We propose that the fund would be jointly funded by both governments on a pro-rata basis.

Economic Review

The Chamber believes that a review of the Economic Relationship between the UK and Ireland is long overdue, with such an exercise not undertaken in over a decade. With the changing nature of the relationship due to Brexit, a review is not only timely but critical. ONS and CSO figures give us an indication of the trade of goods and services, however it does not give us the wholistic picture of the intertwined nature of our economies.

North South Ministerial Council/ British Irish Council

It is regrettable that North South Ministerial meetings have been a victim of increased tensions over the Protocol. This institution is vital to the North/South but also the East/West relationship. It is important that these institutions are earnestly engaged with by all parties. The British Irish Council is victim of a lack of prioritisation – a British Prime Minister hasn’t hosted a meeting since Tony Blair at the inaugural meeting in 1999. The British Irish Council should have its remit strengthened and the UK PM should attend in the same way the Taoiseach and the First Ministers of NI, Scotland and Wales do.

 

UK Ireland Secondment Programme

The relationship between government officials from the UK and Ireland enjoyed a high point during the UK’s membership of the EU as they met on the fringes of meetings and for the most part found themselves in agreement. We believe that a secondment programme for Civil Servants would serve to strengthen these ties in the absence of the opportunity to do so in Brussels, while also utilising the wealth of knowledge that the UK built up from its long membership of the EU.

Conclusion

There is a path forward for UK-Irish relations to get back to the high points enjoyed over the years following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, including the reciprocal state visits the Queen and President Higgins in 2011.

Issues around the protocol need to be resolved through negotiations, not unilateral action, we urge the UK and the EU to engage in good faith.