Full-time health visitor Nuala McKernan (33) lives in Martinstown, Co Antrim, with her mechanic husband, Johnny (35), and their two children, Connor (5) and Caoimhe (3).
“I normally spend between £100 and £150 on groceries. I’ve noticed that prices have gone up; not a considerable amount, but cheese and butter are definitely more expensive. Cheese has sky-rocketed. It cost me over £5 for a block of Dromara in a shop recently.
I’ve been shopping locally since the start of the pandemic. It would probably be cheaper to go to a supermarket, but there would also be a lot of wastage as I don’t plan too far ahead. I’m a frequent shopper and I normally buy my groceries day to day, or every other day.
Six weeks ago, I noticed a lot of empty shelves in various shops and supermarkets, but most products seem to be coming through again. But I still find fruit can be hard to get.
When I was in Marks & Spencer the other day, all the strawberries had that day’s ‘best before’ date on them. That’s happening more and more often and I don’t know what the issue is.
I don’t mind paying a bit more for M&S fruit, because my kids love it, plus Connor takes a healthy snack to school every day, but it’s not always practical for me to buy it there. I ended up going to Spar instead, where I bought strawberries from a Northern Ireland company with a better ‘best before’ date.
I’ve also noticed that M&S has been selling Cookstown ham and not their own brand. There’s also been a lack of chicken. I’ve found that there’s very little left on the shelves if you leave it too late in the day to do your shopping.
Previously, there would’ve been product deliveries every day, but that’s clearly not the case anymore.”
Nathan Boyd, manager of a butcher’s shop in Ballyhackamore, Belfast, has been with the company for six years.
“This is one of Corrie’s first shops — we’re here over 10 years. All our beef comes from our own farm shop, our whole chickens come from Rockvale Poultry in Armagh, our pork comes from Galgorm Meats, our lamb is from Northern Ireland, too. We haven’t changed any suppliers as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
We struggled to get chicken fillets for a while. There was a really big demand for them as a result of people panic-buying. Chicken fillets seemed to be the main go-to food, because they’re so versatile. For a couple of weeks around March/April, we found that we couldn’t meet demand.
We buy our chicken fillets from Poland. They’re what’s classed as Grade A chicken, which is the best you can buy. Northern Irish chicken fillets are an extortionate price to bring in and customers would have to pay almost double what they currently pay.
Because we’d left the EU as a result of Brexit, the boats were unable to leave the ports to get into Northern Ireland, so it was a bit of a struggle with getting chicken fillets in. That’s the only thing that has really stumped us over the last year-and-a-half.
That product shortage didn’t have any material impact on the business, because our customers simply shopped for alternatives in-store. A lot of people who come here buy a big tub of chicken fillets to last them one or two weeks. So, when stock was low, instead of getting a tub, they took two or three fillets and bought something else on the side. No one kicked up about it; everyone was very understanding because of the pandemic and Brexit.
Our turnover is healthy and there hasn’t been anything detrimental about the situation.”
Co Down horticulture farmer Mark McKee (55) supplies Northern Ireland’s supermarkets with carrots, parsnips and brassicas from his 260-acre farm. He runs his family business near Newtownards with his wife Gwen, son Mark and brother James.
“The big problem we have with the Northern Ireland Protocol is around plant protection products (PPPs). The legislation around PPPs has changed. Before Brexit, we adhered to European laws on PPPs and they had the overall say, so if you wanted a new active ingredient in a PPP, it had to be registered in Europe. The UK could then get that active ingredient authorised for use here.
What we have to do in Northern Ireland now is we have to go with the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), but when they take that to the chemicals regulation division, they need to make sure that everything that is going to be used in Northern Ireland is still legal with Europe.
For example, the UK permitted the use of a product to get rid of aphids, but it wasn’t allowed in Europe, so we can’t use that product in Northern Ireland.
What the Protocol is saying is that, if you want to grow vegetables and use chemicals, we have to make sure that it’s legal in the UK and legal in Europe. We’ve seen it already — there is going to be a divergence and what will happen is that the products you can use in the UK are going to be totally different from the products you can use in Europe — and we won’t be able to use any of them.
It’s going to become commercially non-viable for us to grow products to meet the cost demands, because we might not even get a crop with no herbicides. We are totally focused on vegetables for Northern Irish people. We want local produce for local people. If we don’t do something about this, we are going to kill all local produce.
There will be a shortage in produce, because we won’t have the chemistry to compete with everybody else. I haven’t found any advantages in the Protocol yet and I’ve been looking everywhere to see how it is an advantage to Northern Irish horticulture.”
Kilkeel fisherman Trevor McKee (58) has been fishing out of the Co Down harbour for most of his life. The owner of the Sparkling Sea boat, Mr McKee’s crew catch whitefish, haddock and hake.
“In terms of the shellfish side of things, it has been hit very hard by the Protocol. It’s the paperwork involved when they try and get their product into Europe. There’s a lot of paperwork and, because it’s a perishable product, the shellfish is sitting in ferry ports. It could be sitting there for two days before they can get the paperwork passed.
If there’s one wee part of the paperwork that’s not right the whole consignment is turned away and that’s a total loss. It’s not as if you can take it back and repackage it.
The major stumbling block we’ve had is on the whitefish end of things and getting our product into the rest of the UK. The Protocol has been bandied about as another excuse for things not happening the way they should be happening, but at the end of the day, it’s all to do with Brexit. Brexit is the biggest stumbling block that we have had, because it’s affected the areas that we can fish. We have been denied access to EU waters as they are now in the Irish Republic.
Nothing is being done about it and it seems to be a political football. They’re using these cross-border bodies as excuses as to why things aren’t working, but the two sides aren’t even talking. It makes their lives easier when they’re not talking, but it makes the lives of people who are trying to make a living between the two borders an absolute disaster.
They don’t realise what they’re doing. They’re wiping out coastal communities — north and south.”
The road haulier
Aodh Hannon is managing director of Hannon Transport.
“For us, it’s not just the last six months since the ending of the transition period that has been intense — the last 18 months have been a bit of a roller coaster.
We spent the 12 months before the end of the transition period in intensive Brexit preparations. The single biggest issue we faced was lack of certainty — you didn’t know what was coming down the line and had to prepare for a number of different scenarios and build in multiple contingency plans.
Our approach to Brexit was belt-and-braces. We recruited our own customs staff to a level above what we expected, even in a reasonable worst case scenario — it was a vital part of our risk mitigation. Our initial focus was on ensuring a smooth service to our existing customers as the new customs procedures came online.
In total, we committed over £200,000 preparing for Brexit, not counting the salaries of 30-plus dedicated customs administrators we employed and trained. Fortunately, we had no huge hiccups ourselves, mostly because we had prepared so much, but also because we predominantly move fresh produce and horticultural products to and from Europe, which the Protocol currently applies a light touch to.
Movements between GB and NI form a smaller part of our business and there were difficulties there, particularly in what is known as groupage transport, where multiple and separate loads are carried within one trailer.
Having got through the first 100 days, we then found that a lot of customers who maybe previously had suppliers in Great Britain were searching for European suppliers for goods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh cut flowers, etc and we were inundated with new customer requests.
Six months into the NI Protocol, our processes are well bedded-in and we are now providing a customs-only service to many new customers who source their own transport, but require help with the new processes and the Trader Support Service (TSS), so our business turnover was up 33%.
In terms of margin, however we are coming under significant pressure. The extra business we are picking up is predominantly East-West. If everything you want to move is coming from the EU mainland to the island of Ireland, you still have to get the trucks out, and they’re often going out empty, which affects your margin.
So, it has had a good impact on turnover, but pushed our margins down to approaching zero. But we’re in a better position than many as at least we’re getting good turnover and we’re proactively trying to get NI products out to Europe by talking to wholesalers and distributors in Europe.
Six months prior to the transition as part of our preparations, we opened a base in Rungis International Market, Paris, the largest fresh produce market in the world, and have great, long-standing relationships with some of Europe’s largest supermarkets, so we’re proactively trying to get NI fresh produce like meat, mushrooms, herbs, etc out to Europe.
But there is no denying that stress levels and uncertainty within the industry remain high. A lot of what we carry for NI customers is shipped and driven through GB. It’s very light touch at the moment and the overhead can be absorbed, but the end of the grace period for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) goods in October could just absolutely multiply the problems and the costs.”
Declan Gormley is managing director of Brookvent Group in Dunmurry, which makes energy-saving ventilation systems for the construction sector.
“Post-Brexit, we continue to operate practically the same as pre-Brexit. We have free access to Europe and we have unfettered access to the UK and that’s very beneficial. We have quite a significant business in Europe, including Poland and on to Russia. Central and Eastern Europe is a very important market. We now employ 122 people with 44 in Belfast.
The Protocol has allowed us to secure a distributor agreement with a company in the Republic, so on balance it probably went in our favour that we were based here in Belfast. There wouldn’t be any of the potential problems that were forecast with dealing with a similar company that’s now outside the EU, in England.
Our continued outward investment will be focused on Europe and because of the EU, it was as easy for me to be able to go and set up business in Poland as it would have been in Peterborough. There are specific issues about the Protocol which at a practical level need to be addressed. But that doesn’t mean that the glitches that have now been identified shouldn’t be addressed. It needs to be made much more user-friendly for the people who are sending the goods from the UK mainland to NI and the people who are receiving them.
When it comes to the Protocol, you have to separate the economy and the politics. From the economic point of view, it offers a huge opportunity for NI if the Protocol is properly implemented. We will be able to offer to outside investors an opportunity to come and locate jobs in NI and the attraction is you can trade with the EU, which is a market of nearly 400 million, and the UK. If you went to Leeds, you wouldn’t be able to do that.
If you go to Dublin, yes, you can trade with the EU, but if you come to Belfast, you’ll have both. That offers a significant opportunity for investors to look at this place seriously, but they won’t do that unless the political situation stabilises.
No investor is going to make significant commitments if they feel the Protocol could be voted away in three years’ time.”