It was never going to be straightforward, but the new post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland have caused growing concern.
Since they were introduced at the beginning of the year, some supermarkets have experienced disruption to supplies while hauliers have described being “overwhelmed” by red tape due to new checks.
Here is a rundown of the issues, the political reaction and what may lie ahead in the coming months.
What new trade arrangements are in place for Northern Ireland as a result of Brexit?
Northern Ireland is operating different regulatory and customs arrangements to the rest of the UK, as the region is remaining in the EU single market for goods and is applying EU customs rules at its ports.
Customs declarations and extra checks are now required on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but trade in the other direction remains largely unfettered.
Animals, plants and many food products entering Northern Ireland from Britain are subject to EU checks and processes.
The arrangements are the result of the Northern Ireland Protocol, aimed at preventing a hard land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Preventing a land border means these checks are being carried out at ports, effectively creating an Irish Sea border.
What issues have we seen in supermarkets since these new arrangements came into effect?
Shoppers in Northern Ireland have noticed shortages of some products, with images of bare store shelves shared online.
There is a varied picture of the problems. While empty shelves are visible in some parts of some supermarkets, others appear well stocked.
In MS stores, more than 380 products are temporarily unavailable in Northern Ireland as they not being sent from its distribution centres in Britain.
Sainsbury’s has begun stocking some Spar-branded products such as milk as chains look at ways to source more products from within the island of Ireland.
But other supermarkets have reported no supply issues.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said that “while there may be slightly less choice there is plenty of stock”.
He said the number of products temporarily unavailable in some supermarkets is a small proportion of their overall goods available to customers.
“The average supermarket has somewhere around 40,000 items and a couple of hundred are missing in the short term,” he said.
Why are these issues happening?
Animals, plants and many food products moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland now face additional checks, processes and paperwork.
Some businesses and supply chains are having difficulty understanding and implementing the new arrangements.
But Mr Connolly said the disruption is “not just because of Brexit”.
He said the coronavirus pandemic was also a factor, including a temporary halt to traffic across the English Channel between Dover and Calais before Christmas due to a new strain of the virus.
“We’re still recovering from the days that we didn’t get stuff over the Channel,” he told Belfast Live.
“It’s complicated. We’re some staff down because of shielding and contact tracing, and that means it is taking slightly longer to refill the shelves.
“There are no shortages. There may be a few choice issues, but there is plenty of stuff so people should just buy normally.”
What have the supermarkets said?
While some supermarkets have reported temporary issues, others said they were seeing “no adverse impacts” of the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.
MS, which has more than 6,000 food products, said the list of unavailable items at its Northern Ireland stores is a temporary measure.
A spokesman last week said: “Stores have been receiving regular deliveries this week, however following the UK’s recent departure from the EU, we are transitioning to new processes and we’re working closely with our partners and suppliers to ensure customers can continue to enjoy a great range of products.”
A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: “A small number of our products are temporarily unavailable for our customers in Northern Ireland while border arrangements are confirmed.
“We were prepared for this and so our customers will find a wide range of alternative products in our stores in the meantime and we are working hard to get back to our full, usual range soon.”
An Iceland spokesman said: “No products have been temporarily withdrawn from our stores in Northern Ireland.
“We are seeing no adverse impacts from the post-Brexit arrangements and we are working collaboratively with the team In the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to ensure that this remains the case.”
Lidl NI all stock is “moving to schedule” and they “do not have any significant supply issues in relation to Brexit at present”.
“Over the past two years, we have implemented a Brexit preparation process for our supplier network to enable them to prepare for all Brexit outcomes,” a spokeswoman said.
An Asda spokesman said: “We have not seen any issues on the Irish Sea border for Asda lorries and we are currently not experiencing any shortages due to this.”
Have there been other issues with the new Irish Sea border checks?
Northern Ireland’s chief vet has said many animal product deliveries arriving at the ports during the first week of the year did not have the correct paperwork, and firms had to be helped to comply with EU regulations.
Some big retailers in Britain have suspended or delayed parcel deliveries to Northern Ireland due to uncertainty about post-Brexit rules, while some online shoppers have reported facing additional costs for deliveries to Northern Ireland.
Customs experts involved in supporting traders are working days behind schedule, Seamus Leheny from Logistics UK has said.
More than 100 haulage firms operate across the Irish Sea, ranging from large operators to smaller family run businesses.
Mr Leheny said some hauliers are spending tens of thousands of pounds shipping empty lorries from Britain to Northern Ireland to pick up goods.
These lorries would normally be transporting goods to the region, but they are being left empty to avoid new customs checks at the Irish Sea border.
Mr Leheny told the PA news agency: “One haulier last week told me they spent £24,000 shipping empty trailers back to Northern Ireland, trailers that would normally be coming back laden.
“A hauliers business model is based on having a full load going out and full load coming back.”
‘Groupage’, a type of haulage where goods from different companies for different customers are grouped together on one lorry, have also been experiencing problems.
Foods such as meat, milk and fish moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland now need vet certificates, and then the lorry trailer is sealed.
But groupage can involve picking up goods from different warehouses, meaning trailers could need repeatedly recertified and resealed.
Are post-Brexit issues only happening in Northern Ireland?
Disruption has also been experienced in Great Britain and at its border with mainland Europe.
Border officials were filmed by a Dutch TV network confiscating ham sandwiches and other foods from drivers arriving in the Netherlands from the UK under post-Brexit rules.
Major parcel courier DPD last week paused some delivery services into Europe – including the Irish Republic – because of pressure caused by new post-Brexit red tape.
Senior UK government minister Michael Gove last Friday warned businesses and hauliers there is likely to be “significant additional disruption” at the UK border in the coming weeks.
Mr Gove told broadcasters: “So far disruption at the border hasn’t been too profound but it is the case that in the weeks ahead we expect that there will be significant additional disruption, particularly on the Dover-Calais route.
“It is our responsibility in government to make sure that business is as ready as possible, and hauliers and traders have already done a lot but we have to redouble our efforts to communicate the precise paperwork that is required in order to make sure that trade can flow freely.
“So over the course of the next few days, government will be stepping up that communications effort to make sure that business knows what is required.”
What has the political reaction been?
Stormont parties have clashed over the cause of the post-Brexit disruption.
While the DUP has pointed the finger at pro-Remain parties for backing the NI Protocol, pro-Remain parties have blamed the DUP for backing Brexit.
DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots tweeted: “The issues at our ports are a result of the Ireland Northern Ireland protocol supported by SF, SDLP and Alliance Party.”
Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard said the DUP was wrong to blame the Protocol, adding that trading disruption has also been seen in Britain.
He said empty shelves in some supermarkets was a result of the British government not giving businesses enough time to prepare for the “biggest rupture in trading procedures in decades”.
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry called for “fresh flexibilities” to be agreed between the UK and the EU to resolve problems on moving goods into Northern Ireland.
Mr Farry told MPs the problems “relate to Brexit itself and the nature of the UK-EU trade deal”.
Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs has urged other parties to back a petition to recall the Assembly to discuss the matter, calling for urgent modifications to help businesses and consumers.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has faced criticism for continuing to claim there is “no Irish Sea border” as a result of Brexit.
A UK Government spokesperson said goods are flowing effectively and in normal volumes between Britain and Northern Ireland.
He added: “For that to continue it is vital that all traders and businesses in their supply chains engage fully with the new processes for moving goods into NI, as the majority are doing.
“While most businesses are well-prepared, we know that awareness of the new procedures needs to improve among suppliers in Great Britain, and we are stepping up our communication and engagement with them to ensure they have all the information they need.
“We also recognise some of the specific challenges faced by the haulage sector and we are working intensively with industry to resolve these.”
What can we expect over the coming months?
The full impact of the new arrangements have yet to take effect, as several ‘grace periods’ were agreed to reduce paperwork volumes for the first few months.
This was to allow the likes of supermarkets to have extra time to phase in new checks to their supply lines.
However, such businesses might use this time to reconfigure their supply chains to avoid the Irish Sea border by sourcing more products from within the island of Ireland.
DUP representatives have called for the triggering of Article 16 in the NI Protocol, which allows the EU or UK to unilaterally take steps if there are significant and persistent difficulties.
However, this seems an unlikely move at this early stage.
Aodhán Connolly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said retailers are “adept at quickly changing supply chains”.
But he added: “In the long-term we will need the UK government and the EU to work with us to find long-term workable simplifications that keep choice and affordability for Northern Irish families while keeping Northern Irish business competitive.”
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