Ireland’s foreign minister has dismissed UK government claims Brexit was not to blame for disruption to Northern Irish food supplies.
Simon Coveney spoke out over the issue on Thursday, in a sign of fresh tension over Brexit between the Irish and UK governments.
It comes as hauliers demand urgent aid and an easing of paperwork and checks on trade across the Irish Sea, warning jobs are at risk as delays and costs have left firms “haemorrhaging” cash.
Earlier this week UK minister Brandon Lewis denied disruption was linked to new Brexit rules and checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
He blamed COVID-19 and wider ports disruption Britain has faced in recent months for photos of bare shelves at the start of the month.
Coveney said the pandemic “doesn’t help,” but told ITV: "The supermarket shelves were full before Christmas and there are some issues now in terms of supply chains and so that's clearly a Brexit issue.
He added: “Northern Ireland of course has special treatment and we’ve made a huge effort to try and minimise those checks and that disruption but nevertheless it’s there and very real.”
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He noted former prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans would have “avoided much of the trade disruption that we’re now experiencing,” keeping the UK closer economically to the EU.
A string of leading supermarkets reported supply chain issues in Northern Ireland at the start of the month, with at least two highlighting Brexit, though most stressed issues were not widespread and largely resolved.
Tesco’s chief executive Ken Murphy said last week his firm had “definitely” seen some Brexit disruption. There were some continued issues in “some limited areas,” but overall movement of supplies between Britain and Northern Ireland remained “very strong.”
A Sainsbury’s spokesman told the BBC a small number of products had been temporarily unavailable “while border arrangements are confirmed.”
Andrew Opie, director general of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), has also said issues were an “inevitable consequence” of how last-minute the trade deal was finalised in late December.
Complaints about disruption across the Irish Sea have been widespread, from lorries being rejected at Holyhead port over paperwork issues to Britain-based companies giving up on Northern Irish customers to avoid extra costs and requirements.
New bureaucratic barriers to exports to Europe have also caused uproar among seafood and meat exporters, with meat stuck rotting in ports and fishermen unable to sell their catch.
The Road Haulage Association is demanding UK government intervention. Chief executive Richard Burnett warned: ‘There are going to be jobs lost, that’s the bottom line here.”
Hauliers say it is quicker to send goods from Britain to Spain than Northern Ireland, suggesting some customs declarations were taking 12 hours rather than the 30 seconds reportedly promised. Some drivers are said to have needed 300 pages of paperwork.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Ian Paisley claimed the start of the month had been an “unmitigated disaster.” “There’s a de facto border, an administrative, red tape blockade.”
Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said prime minister Boris Johnson’s claims the Brexit deal meant no non-tariff barriers were an “insult to everyone’s intelligence.”
International trade secretary Liz Truss also contradicted her colleague Lewis in accepting Brexit had affected trade flows, but said “predictions of Armageddon” had been misplaced.
Asda blamed its own issues on problems at Dover rather than Brexit, however.
Britain’s ports and supply chains were already suffering disruption before new rules were imposed, with high global freight volumes, Brexit stockpiling, and France’s rules on negative COVID-19 tests for hauliers among the issues.
A UK government spokesman said: “Goods are flowing effectively between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and there is no disruption at Northern Ireland ports. The grace periods for businesses moving goods between GB and NI are in operation and working well.
“We are aware of specific issues related to moving mixed food loads, known as groupage, and new guidance is coming soon following a successful trial with industry.”
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