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Industry Focus

Protocol Pragmatism And the Brexit Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Sir Kenneth Branagh’s much-acclaimed and award-winning film Belfast, set against the backdrop of the tumult of that city’s troubles during the late 1960s, is a comedy-drama that exudes a warmth and charm that seems wildly at odds with its subject matter.

The autobiographical film takes a sideways look at this dark period through the eyes of a young child and tells the story of everyday working-class life in a torn apart, occupied, and divided capital. Although it is shot in black and white, the grainy streets are full of colourful characters getting on with their daily lives, despite the palpable presence of violence around every corner.

The world continues to look at Northern Ireland through the prism of those troubles—the reason Kenneth and his family had to leave their hometown— and the province’s relationship with the rest of the UK, particularly over the thorny issue of Brexit. Although there is a predominantly black-and-white view of the situation from some political quarters, there is a fuller colour palette of opinion across most of the region.

The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain part of Europe in the 2016 referendum, but a UK-wide majority wanted out of the EU. This created the current troubled backdrop for the province, which is the smallest and most westerly outpost of the UK and the closest land border between Europe and the British Isles—400 kilometres of contentious crossing points into the Republic of Ireland, which remains part of the EU.

As a result, the Republic has, arguably, suffered the most as a result of the divorce, with collateral damage to businesses mired in border red tape and empty shelves in stores.

Combined with the impact of COVID, Brexit has accelerated labour shortages with many overseas HGV drivers and security staff, at the frontline of keeping the economy going, heading home to Europe after free movement of labour came to a grinding halt in 2021.

Northern Ireland Protocol

The political upheaval has been created as a legacy of the troubles. It has also created an existential desire of the population to determine their own identity as part of what has become a devolved power-sharing assembly at Stormont, as well as their day-to-day desire to provide a pragmatic approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol. That’s the deal struck between Brussels and the Westminster Government over the EU withdrawal bill to avoid a hard border between the north and south of Ireland as well as the UK and Europe. While Great Britain is no longer in a customs union with the EU, Northern Ireland remains an entry point into it and therefore remains in the single market, thereby creating a defacto border down the Irish Sea, a political construct that avoids a hard land border that many believe would reignite the divisions of old.

However, the Protocol, which has been seen as a burdensome complex mechanism for maintaining “frictionless” exports between the two distinct trading blocs, has reduced the debate to the linear black-and-white kind of discussion that provokes old enmities and political and paramilitary discord, rather than purposeful and pragmatic discourse.

In February DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, a staunch critic of the Protocol, ordered customs officers in Belfast and Larne to stop checking goods from the UK that were travelling into Europe, a move that triggered a constitutional crisis with the Stormont Assembly—including the resignation of the first minister and deputy first minister—and a collision course with Brussels, which saw the move as a breach of an international treaty.

The Protocol’s implementation was designed to prevent the unravelling of the historic Good Friday Accord, the peace agreement that ended decades of political and sectarian troubles, and this move was seen by many as a deliberately provocative act of sabotage, exactly fifty years after Bloody Sunday, where thirteen unarmed Catholic civil rights protestors were shot dead by British troops deployed on the streets of Derry.

A nation with the flint of the Giant’s Causeway coursing through its veins, Northern Ireland has a pugnacious history of leading with the chin as it seeks to assuage a sense of collective injustice on both sides of the political and sectarian divide. A forward-looking business community with a vibrant tourist sector selling the modern-day Titanic and Game of Thrones experiences sees itself as once more anchored to a bloody past.

With hundreds of years of conflict and many communities wearing their hearts in mural form on the gable ends of terraced houses, a febrile atmosphere over a divided Europe can easily conflate issues and ignite tensions in the minds of some sections of the 1.9 million population.

The current arrangement now hangs in jeopardy, and the danger is that the troubled region gets mired in a precarious limbo as it also continues to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

Article Sixteen

Apart from Edwin Poot’s suspension of customs checks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would be “perfectly legitimate” for the UK to suspend the agreement covering Northern Ireland by triggering Article Sixteen while the British government continues to demand a major overhaul to the deal it signed with the bloc in 2020, arguing that its implementation is harming businesses and communities in the historically volatile region.

According to a study by the London School of Economics, the current impact of Brexit Protocol is putting the economy into deficit.

The report carried out in 2020 said, “We find that the non-tariff barriers introduced with the Protocol increase the cost of goods imports from Great Britain relative to a no-Brexit baseline. We also find that the cost of imported and exported services from and to the EU increase. This is reflected in higher production costs for Northern Irish firms, that are in turn forced to increase prices. In the long run, these combined effects could increase the price level in Northern Ireland by 2.3 per cent.

“Because of the higher prices and non-tariff barriers for service exports, Northern Ireland becomes less competitive in international markets. This reduces exports to Britain by 6.1 per cent and exports to the rest of the world by 8.6 per cent. Lower exports reduce firm revenues in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, higher prices reduce household consumption. Consequently, Northern Ireland’s total production decreases. With higher prices and lower production, the real wage decreases by 3.9 per cent due to lower competition and demand for labour. Investment is expected to fall by 3.3 per cent,” the report concluded.

Smaller companies processing lower-value orders are finding the new customs procedures more of a burden.

At Porterhouse Prime Meats, Manager Jonathan Uprichard is faced with rising costs because of difficulties in bringing in packaging and machinery from other parts of the UK. He too, though, sees little upside in triggering Article Sixteen, the way the UK would suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Supply chain issues permitting, he plans to expand in 2022 once there’s more clarity over where Northern Ireland is headed. “It’s hard to plan forward—we can’t do anything until we find out what’s happening,” he said.

Laura Graham-Brown, who owns delicatessen Arcadia on Lisburn Road in Belfast, depends on imports from mainland Britain and argues that post-Brexit trading paperwork has been challenging.

“It’s just the uncertainty that’s killing everyone, the uncertainty of what’s happening,” she said. “Everybody’s just in suspended animation. Nobody is going to spend money and invest in Northern Ireland until they know for sure.”

Impact on Supply Chain

The Protocol has also impacted the supply chain negatively. There has been a reluctance to engage in “groupage,” whereby a lorry coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would pick up a series of pallets for various customers across the province, especially in terms of retail. However, in some cases, the country-of-origin procedures have been judged too onerous, with one haulage company claiming that booking ten trailers onto a ferry used to take minutes but now occupies two people for a whole day.

Yet while some businesses have struggled to adjust, others have benefited with the strong narrative: “It’s time Northern Ireland should be allowed to move on.” A 2021 poll for Queen’s University Belfast found the majority of people in Northern Ireland believe the Protocol is having a positive economic impact.

Goods imported into the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland surged by 78 per cent in the first half of 2021 versus a year earlier, climbing to 1.77 billion euros ($2.08 billion). Companies have become “Protocol pragmatists,” according to Stephen Kelly, chief executive officer of the Manufacturing NI trade association.

“If you’re sending stuff to the EU and further afield, you’re having the time of your life at the moment,” he said. As for the renewed wrangling between the UK Government and EU, “Everybody’s sick of it,” he said.

Security and Retail

A poll in the Belfast Telegraph in 2021 revealed that almost two-thirds of people in Northern Ireland are concerned about a return to violence due to tensions around the NI Protocol, a fear underlined by threats of violence directed at port staff implementing the customs checks.

Despite assurances from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) that there was “zero” evidence of paramilitary groups being behind the port threats, security has once again become a hostage to fortune with angry protests on the streets that included scenes of burned-out vehicles that had echoes of the past.

Despite the PSNI’s assurances, expert analysis at the end of 2021 from the internationally recognised Independent Reporting Commission, said paramilitary gangs embedded within Northern Ireland’s divided communities pose “a clear and present danger” to commit violence fed by post-Brexit tensions.

The report found that Brexit and the EU checks, now required on British goods arriving in Northern Ireland ports, had given loyalist militants in particular a new motivation for violence. It cited recent Police reports indicating loyalist paramilitary members oversaw rioting earlier in 2021 as well as the more recent hijacking and torching of two buses in Belfast suburbs.

“Reaction to Brexit, including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, has led to new complexities and increasing prominence of paramilitarism,” the report found.

Managing Retail Crime

Despite these threats and the headlock that many see paralysing Northern Ireland, the retail sector has been a shining beacon of success on overcoming adversity, particularly when it comes to managing retail crime, an issue that continues to dog the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

In April 2016, the Belfast One Business Improvement District was established in Belfast City Centre with the aim of promoting, enhancing, and supporting businesses in the city centre through a series of projects. As a benefit to its levy payers, Belfast City Centre Management (BCCM) began to deliver and manage the Retail Crimewatch scheme, as a free benefit for all retailers within the Belfast One area, to help reduce retail crime in their area.

Persistent and prolific store theft, where 80 per cent of offending is carried out by 20 per cent of those involved in shoplifting, has been robustly challenged by what has become an industry-leading and award-winning crime prevention programme.

When a store detains an adult who has been caught shoplifting on their premises, workers call the Police, who subsequently arrest the individual. An exclusion order (EO) is issued to the shoplifter and signed by the business and the offender, who will then have their photograph added to the exclusion-order listing. The EO advises them that from the date the order is issued, they are no longer permitted to enter the store or any other business that is a member of the scheme for a minimum of twelve months, therefore reducing the risk of further stock loss. 

Retail Crimewatch has been operating nearly fifteen years, with thousands of offenders being caught and served with exclusion orders that, when breached, can result in the more serious charge of burglary, which carries a custodial sentence.

The programme, which BCCM wants to export to the wider UK and the Republic of Ireland, has over the last two years secured 109 successful prosecutions for burglary after re-entering thieves are arrested for trespass. Fifty-eight of these prosecutions (65 per cent) have resulted in jail time.

The initiative came into operation as a result of the perennial issue of prolific offenders attending court in the morning only to be back in the stores and stealing again by the afternoon.

David Scott of BCCM said, “78 per cent of shoplifters issued with an exclusion order do not go on to reoffend within five years and for the other recidivist offenders, the burglary charges work as a crime prevention solution, as it is only implemented for those offenders who are the most problematic. While the offenders are in prison, it frees up extra Police time and significantly reduces shoplifting.”

Protocol Pragmatism

It is a good example of Northern Ireland exporting best practice thinking, but also highlights the notion of Protocol pragmatism and just getting on with helping to solve an issue that has plagued the retail sector for many years.

One of Northern Ireland’s largest guarding providers, Mercury Security and Facilities Management, a business that helps facilitate the BCCM scheme on the ground in Belfast shopping centres, has closely monitored the post-Brexit scenarios for many of its clients who take a more “Protocol pragmatism” approach to the situation.

CEO Frank Cullen said that although many businesses have been unsettled by the political developments, there has been little impact from a security viewpoint, except for the cost increase on materials and personnel challenges as all security businesses struggled to recruit frontline guards.

“Undoubtedly, businesses across all sectors nationally have suffered with the impact from the pandemic as well as Brexit, resulting in challenges with recruitment and retention. We have found that there is a shift in people’s priorities, as they are now seeking better working conditions that allow them to be more flexible with their arrangements and having more control of a better work-life balance.

“As a result, we’ve taken steps to change our working conditions to meet the expectations of this change in attitudes in our recruitment and retention strategy,” he added.

The negative headlines around Brexit and the fear of a rise in paramilitary activity have not necessarily percolated down to the high street.

“Businesses have not changed their security strategy or outlook in relation to Brexit, as this would have impacted businesses more on a procedural side, particularly for businesses that export,” Frank said.

“The Protocol protests have had more of an impact on the ports, with them having to re-evaluate their current security measures and invest in more robust measures.

“Overall, the fallout from Brexit has been sporadic and very little impact in terms of civil disorder and further escalations of violence, just a few isolated incidents that haven’t had a material effect on the wider business sectors.”

Clients, he said, had re-evaluated their needs in light of the dynamically changing security situation in Northern Ireland. “What we are finding is businesses that utilised manned guarding as the main layer of their security protection measures are now migrating to remote end-to-end technological solutions, as their business needs change.

“Companies are now engaging us at the earlier stages, specifically at the design point of new premises, to consult on the best all-around value security proposition to work in the short to medium term. Solutions can be scaled and repurposed to suit their needs and also advancement in technology,” he said.

COVID-19 has also demanded new approaches from stretched frontline guards across the province. “Since the pandemic took hold, we have adapted to our clients’ needs by repurposing our services,” said Frank.

“We remodelled their security and facility’s needs, providing them with 

highly customer focused, frontline services. At the beginning of 2021, various retailers and schemes had varying restrictions 

being lifted and reapplied at short notice. That meant that our management and their teams needed to be retrained and flexible to these circumstances,” he explained.

The new ways of working included providing key workers performing static security duties, COVID marshalls, cleaning operatives, vacant property checks, remote monitoring of their building protection systems, keyholding and alarm response, providing sanitisation solutions, deep cleans, installation of temperature screening technologies, and redesigning their risk assessments.

“This worked extremely well as lots of businesses have been either closed or operating at reduced capacity and facing changes to guidelines across multiple jurisdictions. We could be more agile to deliver our services without having any operational impact on the business operations. For many, we have become their ‘business continuity’ advisers. Being security professionals, we are conditioned to plan for the unexpected, so our experience places us in a great position to carry out this role,” Frank said.

Just getting on with it, despite the intemperate political and economic weather conditions lashing the northeast corner of Ireland, is par for the course for the nation that built the Titanic and knows a thing or two about resurfacing from adversity and making do and mending. Brexit may make its presence felt, but Northern Ireland businesses have shown their Protocol pragmatism and no longer see their destiny in black and white, but in glorious and rich technicolour.

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