Supermarkets selling into Northern Ireland will have a grace period to adapt their supply systems to the post-Brexit trading reality, the British minister in charge of implementing Brexit has said.
When the United Kingdom exits the European Union's orbit on December 31st, Northern Ireland will remain aligned to the EU's single market and goods arriving in the North will be subject to EU customs rules.
That has created a host of questions about how goods will go from Britain to Northern Ireland – and how to stop the Northern Ireland becoming a backdoor into the EU's single market.
After agreeing with the EU how to implement the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement, Michael Gove told the UK parliament that supermarkets would have a grace period to adapt to new arrangements.
“This deal will keep goods flowing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in January and indeed provide some necessary additional flexibilities,” he said.
“It protects Northern Ireland's supermarket supplies. We heard throughout the year that traders needed time to adapt their systems, that's why we've got a grace period for supermarkets to update their procedures.”
All of Britain's big four supermarket groups – Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons – have a presence in Northern Ireland.
Mr Gove said retailers in Northern Ireland bringing in food products from Britain will be exempt from having to complete export health certificates for three months from December 31st.
On the specific issue of bringing in chilled meats, including sausages, Mr Gove said the UK government had secured a six-month grace period during which there will be “absolutely no change” to current regulations.
He said the UK government would keep under review “how things were operating in order to ensure that we provided the people in Northern Ireland with access to the food that they currently enjoy without any disruption to the integrated supply chains that supermarkets have.”
Responding to Mr Gove's statement, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) said retailers were still unsure about the exact processes needed to move food to Northern Ireland.
“The details of this agreement need to be the baseline for further deliberations and not the end result,” said NIRC director Aodhán Connolly.