Preserving the food trade between Britain and Ireland, post Brexit, is on a par with preserving the peace process, claims the Department for Exiting the EU

Food and drink industry leaders have welcomed a commitment from the government that there would be no system of agrifood checks at the Irish border post-Brexit.

However, they warned that it was one thing to propose having no return to a hard border but quite another persuading EU bosses to accept the deal in the wake of Britain leaving the union.

In a new document, the Department for Exiting the EU put the importance of preserving the food trade between Britain and Ireland on a par with preserving the peace process, highlighting its “critical” role for the Northern Ireland economy and to the wider food industry.

Small traders, farmers and other members of the food industry must be protected from the possibility of any restriction of movement, it said.

In 2016, the UK exported goods worth £13.6bn to Ireland and imported £9.1bn.

‘When considering cross-border trade, it is particularly important to note the integrated nature of the agri-food sector,’ said the report

‘Food, beverages and tobacco account for 49% of cross-border manufacturing trade, with, for example, more than 10,000 pigs exported from Ireland to Northern Ireland every week and a quarter of all milk produced on Northern Ireland’s farms exported for processing in Ireland.’

The paper, which follows a document yesterday on plans for a new customs agreement between the EU and UK, calls for negotiations that would ’recognise the crucial importance of avoiding a return to a hard border for the peace process in Northern Ireland.

‘This must mean aiming to avoid any physical border infrastructure in either the United Kingdom or Ireland, for any purpose, (including customs or agrifood checks … in particular the cross-border movements of smaller traders, farmers and individuals; the need to protect everyday movement of goods; and the integrated nature of the agrifood industry.’

Responding to the proposals, FDF director general Ian Wright said: “Resolution of the Brexit issues surrounding the island of Ireland is the most urgent priority for the UK government. The stakes are high: the peace and prosperity of the citizens of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland hang in the balance.

“We are pleased the government’s paper acknowledges the enormous practical challenges facing us in food and drink, as expressed by FDF and the industry. Nearly a fifth of UK food and drink exports go to Ireland, with more than a third of Ireland’s reaching the UK. FDF therefore welcomes the government’s commitment to preserve a seamless, frictionless, open border with the Republic.

“Of course, these proposals can only become reality when they are agreed with the EU27. We therefore urge the UK and EU negotiating teams to swiftly agree practical solutions that provide business with certainty around the future of the seamless and highly valuable market in food and drink that exists between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”

Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhán Connolly added: “We welcome the recognition of the importance of Northern Ireland and Ireland issues and their unique situation given by both the UK Government and the EU.

“We look forward to the development of “flexible and imaginative solutions” for the border as laid down by the European Council in their negotiating guidelines and broadly agree with the priorities of avoiding a hard border. This involves maintaining the existing Common Travel Area and associated arrangements; and upholding the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement, including the principles of continued North-South and East-West cooperation.

“While the October deadline for an agreement on the Common Travel Area is to be welcomed, we need solutions on the movement of goods, health and on tariffs in a similarly expedited manner well in advance of March 2019 to provide certainty for our members and for Northern Ireland consumers.”