Of course it was inevitable the trade arrangements surrounding the Irish Sea Border that followed Britain’s final withdrawal from the EU would mean a period of chaos due to the increased bureaucratic requirements. We all hoped that this wouldn’t be the case and that trade would continue unfettered, as was promised.
The new rules manifestly created confusion in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland especially in food shipments. Very many manufacturers in Britain were clearly unprepared for the radical changes.
The outcome was a shortage of food, especially fresh fruit and vegetables on supermarket shelves here, exacerbated by panic buying among shoppers that was also driven by concern over the lockdown. Urgent action is needed to iron out the serious problems. The real danger is, of course, that the heavy duty bureaucracy around food may result in suppliers withdrawing from Northern Ireland.
The retail and food production sectors cannot afford disruption to trade with Britain. It is our biggest single market and one in which leading retailers have come to depend on supplies from Northern Ireland. We need the links between the supermarkets in Britain and their operations here to continue and indeed to be strengthened in both short and long terms. Our major manufacturers and also very many smaller products look to these retailers in Britain for growth.
National supermarkets have contingency plans in place for the immediate future. And I commend Sainsbury’s for its contingency agreement with Henderson Wholesale which has led to local products filling possible gaps in supermarket shelves. A number of our member companies are benefiting from this initiative. This is an important opportunity for smaller companies to gain an initial food hold in such stores.
There’s a message, of course, for the supermarkets that Northern Ireland producers offer significant supply opportunities and a way to offset the new bureaucracy. We’d certainly be keen to play our part in helping them find local suppliers offering quality, outstanding taste and innovation.
In addition, another benefit of the agreement serves to introduce more local foods to supermarket shoppers here, which is good for the local industry and smaller producers in particular.
As I’ve written many times before in this column, we have outstanding food and drink and totally professional producers which have won recognition from leading food writers such as the late Charles Campion, the widely respected and perceptive MasterChef judge and outstanding commentator, who sadly passed away just before Christmas. His support for our industry was immensely encouraging. He was a game changer who showed us that our food is genuinely world class.
I know Charles would have been pleased to see the connection between Henderson’s and Sainbury’s, in his own words ‘ thereis outstanding food and drink in Northern Ireland and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.’