Plan to override protocol has left businesses in doubt, says industry boss

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The UK Government’s legislation to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol has plunged businesses back into uncertainty, a Co Tyrone business owner has said.

Darragh Cullen, managing director of Edge Innovate in Dungannon, said the feeling now is similar to the uncertainty and worry felt following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016.

Mr Cullen was speaking to the PA news agency after giving Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill a tour of his plant.

Edge Innovate design and manufacture diesel-powered mobile machines, used to help recycle waste, which are exported across the world.

Darragh Cullen (left) shows Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill (second left) around the factory floor of his plant (Liam McBurney/PA)

He said there was a lot of uncertainty and worry following the referendum around access to markets in Europe.

“Today feels a bit like that, there is a bit of deja-vu in terms of all the uncertainty that goes with is the protocol still going to exist, are we still going to have access to those markets,” he said.

“The protocol first and foremost, for the short term anyway, removed a lot of uncertainty in terms of giving us that ability to access both markets.

“It’s been working really really well so we can sell our goods into Britain and we can also sell our goods into the whole of Europe. There are no tariffs and there isn’t a lot of administration.

“In terms of importing components from Britain and from the EU, there is a bit more paperwork but it’s not anything that remains a challenge. We have been able to overcome that hurdle pretty easily.”

He said they are worried about the possibility of a trade war between the UK and EU.

“Those markets are hugely important, not just to Edge Innovate but to all the manufacturing companies in the sector and so many exporters across the north,” he said.

“We’re very worried about it, it just feels like it is the morning after the Brexit vote. It looks like the story is going to keep running and running but all the time, businesses are facing uncertainty and they’re going to ease back on investment, that’s going to cost jobs and it’s going to cost sales in export markets. It is a worrying time.”

There has been a mixed reception generally across the business sector to the new legislation.

FSB NI (Federation of Small Businesses Northern Ireland) has called on the UK and EU to work collectively to overcome the problems.

Head of FSB NI, Roger Pollen, said he is hopeful that a resolution to the dispute can be secured in order to help what he described as the “significant minority of small businesses that are struggling with aspects of the protocol”.

“We very much hope that a successful outcome will be achieved through dialogue rather than legislation and that it should be in a spirit of common purpose, rather than pure negotiation, which suggests a trade-off rather than focusing on getting the very best outcome,” he said.

“With so much at stake amid the continuing paralysis of politics at Stormont, it is essential that leaders in London and Brussels get laser-focused on fixing the issues as a matter of priority, as delay simply sees opportunity squandered and unnecessary damage inflicted.

“Whilst parts of the protocol are clearly working for sectors such as the dairy and meat processing industries, we need to ensure that it is reviewed and improved so that the significant minority of businesses that have been negatively impacted by it are no longer so disadvantaged.”

Meanwhile, in a joint statement, the TUC (Trade Unions Congress) and NIC-ICTU (Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions) condemned the UK Government’s move, warning it will threaten the peace process in Northern Ireland and lead to a potentially damaging trade war.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Working people must not pay the price for this reckless move.

“The Government must drop this bill, honour the agreement they signed up to and put practical solutions ahead of posturing.

“Ministers need to get back around the table with the EU as soon as possible and come to an agreement that protects jobs, rights and the Good Friday Agreement.

“The Government must show that it respects international agreements to repair its now-trashed reputation as a trading partner.”

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