Supermarket pleas mount as Brexit leaves Northern Ireland shelves bare

Six top supermarket chains demand action as customs checks bite.

Supermarket pleas mount as Brexit leaves Northern Ireland shelves bare

DUBLIN — Supermarket chiefs warned that thinly supplied shelves in Northern Ireland stores will only grow barer unless British and EU trade officials urgently agree to simplify Brexit border checks.

In a joint letter this week to U.K. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, the CEOs of six of Britain’s top supermarket chains — Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Marks & Spencer, Iceland and the Co-Op — forecast that supplying their Northern Ireland outlets with fresh goods will become “unworkable” if the full range of import checks goes into force on April Fool’s Day as planned.

To varying degrees, all six British grocers have battled to keep their Northern Ireland store shelves full since New Year’s Day, once enforcement began of the new Irish Sea customs border — a boundary that the Cabinet minister responsible for the region, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, insists doesn’t even exist.

The Northern Ireland protocol — agreed as part of the U.K.’s exit from the European Union — has left Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., still bound to the EU’s customs rules. This compromise was designed to avoid customs checks at dozens of roads along the 300-mile border with the Republic of Ireland.

But this means hauliers must arrive at the ferry docks with complex customs declarations for each supplier and type of goods being carried inside their trailer. Too often this isn’t happening, spurring many suppliers and haulage firms to reduce and simplify their Northern Ireland-bound loads.

As a result, haulage firms are reporting full loads of goods from Northern Ireland producers to Britain, but often light or empty loads in the other direction. The problem is greatest for shipments that traditionally were mixed — involving different types of goods from several small producers. If any arrives in port with incomplete or inaccurate paperwork, the entire shipment is delayed.

“The movement of food fundamentally is the big issue here because that’s got the most hoops to jump through,” said Seamus Leheny, Northern Ireland policy manager for Logistics UK.

“Let’s say previously I moved apples, oranges and pears in the back of a lorry to Northern Ireland. Since the 1st of January I need to complete separate documentation for the apples, oranges and pears,” Leheny said. 

“Some retailers now are reconfiguring how they send goods to Northern Ireland. Today I might send only apples, tomorrow only pears. You’re seeing these gaps and blips in supply,” he said. “Goods are still coming through. But no doubt about it, this is hugely problematic for a lot of hauliers moving the food here. The workload is overwhelming people.”

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday acknowledged “teething problems” affecting trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but he insisted no lorries had turned back.

“Goods are flowing effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” he told the Commons.

‘Entirely predictable’

Publicly, all six supermarkets downplay their Northern Ireland supply difficulties. But the letter to Gove reflects the unavoidable reality, visible to customers, that some shelves are empty at times or have been “repurposed” with different products to mask the supply chain problems. Signs advising of delays or discontinued lines are commonplace.

M&S has withdrawn at least 380 products from its Northern Ireland shelves, from broccoli to baguettes.

To fill gaps in its own shelves, Sainsbury’s has struck a supply deal for about 300 products from Henderson, a Northern Ireland wholesaler that normally stocks Dutch-owned convenience store chain Spar. For the next three months at least, Henderson goods — a third of them in Spar’s own-store branding — will be sold in the 13 Sainsbury’s stores in Northern Ireland.

Industry chiefs say the problems are certain to worsen once the three-month “grace period” for full compliance with EU import rules expires.

“Every effort needs to be made to simplify this as much as possible and ensure that confidence is given back to GB suppliers that they can continue to send stuff here,” said Stephen Kelly, chief executive of lobbying group Manufacturing NI.

The bureaucratic hurdles become higher, and more expensive, when goods produced in continental Europe arrive in Northern Ireland via distribution hubs in Britain. Unless those goods can be shown to be produced at least partly with British ingredients or processes, onward “export” to Northern Ireland can incur tariff charges.

Katy Hayward, a Queen’s University Belfast professor and senior fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, said the current “surprises” at border ports were “entirely predictable.”

She blames the U.K. for dragging out the post-Brexit trade negotiations to Christmas Eve, turning what should have been a lengthy “preparation” period into a last-minute ambush. This meant government agencies were still updating their advice and instructions to hauliers on New Year’s Eve.

“There was no time really for properly informing people about the changes being made and allowing them to adapt as needs be. This is a huge adjustment, an incredible change,” Hayward said. “In normal trade agreements, countries become more closely aligned. We’ve got the very opposite going on.”

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