FDF director general Ian Wright said: “FDF welcomes the government’s commitment to preserve a seamless, frictionless, open border with the Republic. We are also pleased to note the commitment to preserving both the Common Travel Area and Common Transit Convention.
“We are pleased the government's paper acknowledges the enormous practical challenges facing us in food and drink, as expressed by FDF and the industry. Of course, these proposals can only become reality when they are agreed with the EU27.”
The FDF, and a number of other food industry organisations, had long supported a soft Irish border after Brexit. It’s comments came after a government position paper revealed plans to avoid a hard Irish border and maintain a common travel area after Brexit.
The government’s top priority
Resolving border issues between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the run-up to Brexit, and providing certainty for food and drink firms, should be the government’s top priority, urged the FDF.
Britain also sought waivers for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to exempt them from border control checks.
The FDF also wanted to identify technical solutions posed by a new ‘trusted traders’ scheme, customs exemptions for SMEs and the issues around sanitary inspection checks for food and drink products.
“Each of these must be done in a way that does not burden business,” Wright added. “We reiterate FDF’s offer to convene a joint industry-government task force to tackle the specific border challenges for food and drink.
“We must ensure that vital imports and exports of raw ingredients and finished goods are not delayed or impeded.”
Reassurance for businesses
The government’s Irish border plans was also welcomed by a range of other business organisations, including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
Josh Hardie, CBI deputy director general, said: “This paper suggests that the UK government is going in the right direction, but there’s a way to go before businesses are reassured that trade will continue smoothly after Brexit.
“What’s needed now is a pragmatic approach on all sides – this is an issue of mutual interest. A significant step up in engagement between the UK government, Irish government, local policy makers and businesses is needed.”
Hardie also argued that without a future UK-wide customs system in place, it would be difficult to see how any guarantees could be given about the absence of physical borders or checkpoints.
“While proposals for exemptions on smaller firms are welcome, this raises a number of questions about how the system will be monitored and enforced,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) said that maintaining a soft border was crucial for Northern Ireland.
FSB UK chairman Mike Cherry said: “Small businesses in Northern Ireland must be able to continue to have access to the workers and skills they need, including those who travel across the border for work every day.
“There must also be easy trade across the border, especially for goods which criss-cross it in the production process. This is in the interest of the UK economy as a whole.”