northern ireland border road sign

The government has temporarily halted import controls from the island of Ireland

The UK’s move to further delay imposing border checks on Irish goods could offer a “back-door entry” for imports from the other 26 EU member states, according to the National Farmers’ Union.

On Wednesday the government said the island of Ireland was to be temporarily exempted from the UK’s imposition of reciprocal import controls on EU-sourced goods on January 1, “for as long as discussions on the [Northern Ireland] Protocol are ongoing”.

Peter Hardwick, the British Meat Processors Association’s trade advisor, said the government’s announcement was necessary given that a “large volume” of goods sent from Northern Ireland to Great Britain transits via Irish ports.

The announcement was “unsurprising”, according to Gail Soutar, the NFU’s international trade advisor, but raised concerns that “goods could come to the GB market from the EU via the island of Ireland without any checks or processes”.

Soutar warned this latest change to the UK’s EU-related import control plans came “late in the day” and “[did] nothing to instil confidence, certainty or preparedness among traders”.

But Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation, said the Ireland announcement was “a sensible, pragmatic move” and “one less thing to worry about”.

“The efforts businesses have made to prepare are not lost, they will be required in the end,” he said.

A survey published earlier this week by the Institute of Directors in London suggested about a third of British importers had not prepared for the start of controls, which the government had rescheduled several times ahead of Wednesday’s announcement of its Ireland exemption.

IOD policy advisor Emma Rowland said while “businesses importing from the island of Ireland will of course welcome the government’s decision”, many others ”are simply not prepared for the changes regarding imports from the rest of the EU, due to be introduced in just two weeks’ time”.

Rowland said the government should “improve awareness around these changes and simplify the existing guidance, so we do not see further disruptions to the supply chain”.

The government on Thursday published several country-by-country guidelines and posted dozens of webinar videos aimed at businesses importing from the EU after checks come in next year, after almost a year of controls on goods going the other way as part of the UK and EU’s post-Brexit trade deal.

Shane Brennan said the government’s Ireland exemption showed “how much effort the UK government is putting in to make it as easy as possible for EU-based businesses to sell goods into the UK, whilst at the same time it remains slow, difficult and costly for UK-based exporters”.

London did not say how long the Ireland exemption, which was welcomed in Dublin on Wednesday by Irish deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar, was to last. Bord Bia, meanwhile, said it was “incorporating this new information” into its “extensive suite of Brexit supports” for Irish companies.

The temporary reprieve was also backed by UK retailers who stock Irish-sourced goods and by Irish exporters to the UK.

Anne Randles, director of corporate affairs at Ornua, a major Irish dairy exporter to the UK, said the announcement was a ”positive response by the UK authorities to the practical realities on the ground” and to ”on-going concerns over food supply chains”.

Aodhán Connolly, trade advisor at the British Retail Consortium, said the postponement of checks “will ultimately reduce the impact on consumers, particularly as January is when retailers import large volumes of fresh produce”.

The Food and Drink Federation said on Thursday that UK exports of food and drink were down almost 16% in the first three quarters of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels, a fall it said was “largely due to a drop in sales to the EU of £2.4bn”.

Exports to Ireland – which despite its small size was the UK’s biggest food and drink market, according to the FDF – fell by a quarter. Meanwhile the UK’s food and drink imports from Ireland were down by a fifth over the time period, the FDF estimated, part of a wider 11 per cent fall in imports from the EU.