2. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what recent discussions he has had with the British and Irish Governments and the European Union on opportunities for farmers and food producers in Northern Ireland to expand their exports based on dual market access offered by the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. (AQO 2254/17-22)
It is primarily a matter for the industry how it makes the best use of the current set of trading arrangements. Invest NI continues to provide support to Northern Ireland exporters. In discussions with government, I have been clear in my view that the protocol causes significant difficulties for Northern Ireland businesses because of the trade friction introduced on goods moving from GB to Northern Ireland. As GB is our largest market for the sale and supply of goods, we need frictionless trade with GB in both directions. Furthermore, we have to have a say in the agri-food regulations that impact businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland.
Minister, since the end of the Brexit transition period, food exports from Great Britain to the EU have fallen sharply. They have frequently been delayed and stuck in warehouses, with produce going out of date as quickly as the average DUP leadership. However, exports from Northern Ireland going South and beyond into the wider EU market have shot up. Last week's statistics from the Central Statistics Office show that exports from Northern Ireland have doubled in volume and value. Meanwhile —
— exporting food producers here have unfettered access into Britain. Minister, acknowledging that we need to streamline east-west goods transit, why do you want to deprive our amazing food producers of one of the most advantageous export positions on the planet?
I have described the protocol as something that gives us a win, in that we get that export trade. However, in exchange for that single goal scored, we concede about six goals on our imports. The consequence of the protocol is that businesses cannot get the goods in to carry out their manufacturing processes without the delays and additional costs that make them more uncompetitive. The delusion that it is a win-win circumstance is just that: it is an absolute delusion. We are taking a battering as a result of the protocol. That battering is because of our reliance on imports. Over 50% of our imports come from Great Britain, and those are being disproportionately affected. If the Member is operating under the delusion that having 15,000 checks per week at Northern Ireland ports when the grace periods end is positive for the people of Northern Ireland, he really is living in cloud cuckoo land.
The European Commission has called for cattle farmers in the North to be included in the Irish grass-fed beef protected geographical indication (PGI) application, a move that would help to ensure that Ireland is recognised as producing the most environmentally friendly and climate-friendly beef in the world. Minister, do you agree that that provides us with another important opportunity — obviously, we heard the good news today about Dale Farm, which the protocol has brought about — to mitigate the disastrous consequences of Brexit for our farmers, such as those included in the trade deal with Australia, which you obviously oppose?
The "disastrous consequences" are related to the protocol, not to Brexit. The opportunities to sell food to our main market, GB, are stronger now as a consequence of Brexit and because of the issues that will inevitably come about as it becomes more difficult for the EU to export goods to Great Britain. That creates an even better opportunity for us.
I remind Members that the country that pays most for beef in the European Union is the United Kingdom. You can chase pots of gold at the end of rainbows elsewhere, but I would rather use the certain market that we have on our doorstep. That market uses exactly the same standards, has the same taxation system and has the same regulatory bodies as us. We have an excellent market there. Why would I throw that away for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that Sinn Féin tries to bluff the community exists?
It is probably not beneficial to Northern Ireland food producers. More than likely, it is beneficial to other businesses and industries, but, for Northern Ireland food producers, it will be a challenge. Nonetheless, it is a challenge we will have to rise to
and it has been brought about as a consequence of the deal that has been done. Let us be real: more deals will be done with other countries, such as the Mercosur countries, North America and other places.
The attitude that the UK Government have to Australia is that Korea and China's growing demand for beef is of such significance that little additional beef or lamb will come from Australia to the UK. That remains to be seen. I made this argument to them. We have a vibrant rural community. We had vibrant coal-mining and car-making communities in the United Kingdom. The consequence of not looking after those industries was widespread unemployment in housing estates and degeneration in those areas. I do not want that happening in our rural communities, so I urged caution on the Australian trade deal.