“TUncertainty was the biggest challenge. So this is good progress,” says Andrew Lynas, of the new agreement 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 caused severe headaches. But what he sees as far more important than the reams of additional paperwork, costs and broken relationships with British suppliers is the end of the political storm.
“Stability and certainty are big tics for us as a business. At least if our suppliers – whether they are in Birmingham or France – know what the reality of doing business 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 have largely welcomed the progress.
In a statement, the region’s 14 largest business groups praised the “considerable efforts” by both sides, while urging them to continue working together to help businesses adjust.
Lynas Foodservice is perhaps the perfect case study for the breakdown in trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK; is the largest family-owned food supplier on the island of Ireland, sending over 3,000 deliveries a day to pubs, cafes and restaurants across the region, as well as to 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 some people in this business who exist because of this complexity and paperwork,” says Lynas.
“There was a cost and the fear of ‘how do you deal with a supplier from Northern Ireland?’ and whether that will change in a few months.
However, the company, which has 700 employees and a turnover of £180m a year, has overcome the headaches, while Lynas says engagement, minimizing tensions and a functioning society are far more important. “We’ve had much worse battles in Northern Ireland than the protocol unfortunately, so we’ve figured out how to deal with it,” he says.
“The most important thing for me is that we need Stormont working. As a businessman, as someone in society, we just need a government that works. I just hope and pray that’s what we get out of it.”
“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 goodness the adults are back at 10 Downing Street. It has been a long saga of disputes, dissent, arguments and disagreements that has not helped anyone.”
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 tariff-free,” reads a banner in his email signature, in a sentiment shared by many, but not all, business owners.
“I don’t think much has changed. As long as there is no change in access to the single market, the rest is just noise.”
Declan Gormley, managing director of Brookvent – which exports hundreds of ventilation products from its base in Belfast 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 the EU market. We have grown significantly in the last decade due to our ability to access the EU and to be able to expand to Poland and other countries. It has worked really well for us.”
Smoothing the region’s turbulent political waters is, however, a key priority, made possible recently by “a much more concerted effort” in Westminster and Brussels to overcome obstacles. “Before, we had prime ministers showing up and promising no checks, or telling people they would tear up the deal and throw it in the bin. All of this 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 14 major industry groups say the details of the Windsor deal still need to be worked out, while bosses said the DUP’s reaction will be important.
“With Northern Ireland being Northern Ireland, I could wake up tomorrow and say to you, ‘Everything we talked about? Forget.’ You just don’t know,” says Gormley.
“But I’m hopeful that we’re now on the path to some form of resolution that everyone can feel they’ve gotten something out of and can move on to more positive things.”