Food Exports

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 8th November 2021.

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Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 8th November 2021

1. Mr O'Toole asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs what assessment he has made of the economic impact of increased food exports from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland and the EU single market. (AQO 2679/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am aware of statistical reports that show large increases in food exports between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland compared with 2020. Caution needs to be applied to comparisons with 2020 given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruption to trade. The increase in trade with the Republic of Ireland is not surprising given the trade barriers that have been put in place between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with the resulting disruption causing businesses difficulties in trading with, by far, our biggest market and having to seek alternative customers. Hence, I continue to seek the removal of all trade barriers within the United Kingdom for goods that are used in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, last week, you said that a proposed new UK/New Zealand trade deal poses "a very serious threat" to Northern Ireland farmers. You just acknowledged that exports from North to South — and, in many cases, I am sure, onwards to the wider European single market — have increased. Does it not therefore follow that Northern Ireland is benefiting from the protections of the protocol and will benefit from them to protect our farmers from what are, as you have said, very serious threats of the UK/New Zealand trade deal?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Our exports have also increased to Great Britain, and therefore exports are going quite well. One reason why exports from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland have increased is due to the difficulties that the Republic of Ireland has with importation from Great Britain. We do not want to be in a similar circumstance in which Northern Ireland has those difficulties with importation from Great Britain. We already have issues there, and it is not in the benefit of any of our constituents to have unnecessary trade barriers imposed between our main trading partner, Great Britain, and Northern Ireland. Therefore, businesses across Northern Ireland and across the community are saying to us that we need to remove those barriers. I hope that the Members opposite will join and assist us in supporting the removal of such barriers.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Does the Minister agree that the protocol barriers have caused a substantial diversion of trade, which is one of the proper grounds upon which article 16 of that same protocol can be triggered? If it is triggered, will the Minister undertake to, at that point, cease all checks at our ports that are being exercised under the protocol?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have engaged with my senior civil servants to indicate that they should be looking at the Command Paper that was produced in July as a means of moving forward on this issue. Trading barriers are not to our benefit, and the deployment of highly qualified veterinary staff and environmental health staff in that role takes them away from other important roles. Unnecessary checks should not be carried out at Northern Ireland seaports because of our juxtaposition to Great Britain. Therefore, that action needs to be addressed.

I remind the Member, even though he knows very well, that a different set of circumstances relating to live animals pre-existed Brexit and the protocol, and we need to take full cognisance of that as well.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

In the context of the increasing levels of North/South trade, will the Minister give a commitment to work with the agri-food sector to enable it to maximise the benefits of the protocol in being able to access the EU and the British market?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I assure the Member that, when it comes to selling goods, I will take pounds sterling, euros, dollars, yen or whatever it happens to be, and I will work with whoever wishes to acquire Northern Ireland's very well produced goods to make it as easy as possible for them to acquire those goods.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I make a declaration of interest as an ex-chief executive of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce. Has any analysis been done of the diversion of trade that has occurred? It is quite obvious that the reduction in the movement of goods between places like Holyhead and Liverpool to Dublin has, in some respects, been replicated by movements from Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic. Have you had an opportunity to talk to any of the major supermarket chains about that dislocation of the logistics chain and the fact that we have a circular economy that seems to be falling flat?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, we have. Clearly, a lot of goods are coming through Northern Ireland's seaports as opposed to Dublin seaport because it is easier to get into the island of Ireland in that way. There has been a dislocation and less use of the land bridge to go to the Continent.

Our logistics firms have been doing some tremendous work on food security and food traceability. I believe that that work covers a lot of the issues that were talked about pre Brexit regarding tracing food from source right through to sale and everything in between. Ultimately, in due course, the standard of work will be used as a template right across the world. If Members have the opportunity to look at some of this, they will be pleasantly surprised and pleased at just how good we are at tracing all goods from the factory, during transit right through to their destination. If we ever get to the point of having an agreement with the European Union — I hope that, at some stage, the EU will be sensible about how best we can protect its single market — it will be able to identify the logistics work that is being done that will greatly assist in that.