“The amount of funding the Treasury allocate, and over what timeframe, will be crucial to any future policy.”

That was the key message from Graeme Wilkinson, Brexit Director in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), one of the speakers at a Brexit workshop organised by Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and Enniskillen Business Improvement District recently.

He is one of the civil servants currently running Northern Ireland in the absence of a functioning Executive. Mr. Wilkinson declined to comment on the current situation which was described as a “democratic deficit” by compere UTV journalist Paul Clarke.

Mr. Wilkinson was asked for his opinion on whether the Brexit talks with Dublin, Brussels and Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) would be easier if there were politicians at the helm. After some hesitation, a clearly uncomfortable Mr. Wilkinson mumbled: “It would be better.”

The event also featured presentations from Dr. Eoin Magennis, Senior Economist at Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre; Mairaid McMahon, Development Manager at the Federation of Small Business and Mark Sterritt, Manager of InterTradeIreland’s Brexit Advisory Service.

Mr. Wilkinson told the event: “It is widely recognised that our department will be the most widely affected by Brexit.”

He explained that, after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in March 2019, 28 European frameworks legislating for agriculture, environment and rural affairs will become the responsibility of DAERA. Fourteen of those frameworks relate to the environment. Mr. Wilkinson said: “There’s a significant amount of work for us to do around climate change, air quality, waste management pesticide regulations, chemicals etc.”
In addition, the mechanism to replace the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) must be agreed between DAERA and DEFRA.

Mr. Wilkinson said the “future direction” of UK CAP policy is mapped out in Michael Gove’s ‘Green Brexit’ speech.

In that speech, the Environment Secretary said: “The Common Agricultural Policy rewards size of land-holding ahead of good environmental practice, and all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment.

“Current EU-inspired farming approaches are degrading our soil … Which is why we need to take the opportunity that being outside the Common Agricultural Policy will give us to use public money to reward environmentally-responsible land use.

“This Government has pledged that when we leave the EU we will match the £3 billion that farmers currently receive in support from the CAP until 2022.”

READ: Michael Gove: ‘Public goods’ payments to replace ‘unjust’ EU farm subsidies after Brexit

Mr. Wilkinson predicted that “increased productivity, improved resilience and environmental sustainability will be part of any agriculture future policy.”

DAERA is looking at Brexit “through the lens” of 36 per cent of the Northern Ireland population living in a rural area.

Agrifood is “hugely ambitious and the sector seeks to grow further,” said Mr. Wilkinson, adding: “Agrifood in Northern Ireland has a £4.4 billion annual turnover and employs 22,000 people directly. Gross output from the farming sector is £1.8 billion.”

Mr. Wilkinson said the department recognises that “Brexit is not just about the money, it’s about the people and jobs and the social impact Brexit might have.”

Eoin McGuinness, who has worked with the local Council on a number of Brexit-related workshops, said: “The whole Brexit debate has been about more than economics. It has been about politics and sovereignty, immigration and public services as much as it has been about productivity, pounds and pence. In the long run, we will probably come back to pounds and pence."

READ: Eoin McGuinness - Brexit conference hears of the utmost importance of tariffs to border areas

He advised businesses to watch the dollar rate because it “will indicate where the UK markets are likely to go over the next decade.”

Mr. McGuinness pointed out that “inflation has become a big issue, driven by the weakening of sterling and leading to a higher price of imports and fuel costs.”

He said that the weakening of sterling has seen the value of exports go up, but volumes have not. “This does suggest that exporters have used the opportunity to push prices up,” he pointed out.

One pound in every five of exports from Northern Ireland’s Border counties goes to the Republic of Ireland, according to Mr. McGuinness.

“On the northern side of the Border, there’s a greater exposure to risk, which is why the debate is sharper here. In counties such as Cavan, Louth and Monaghan a lot more of their goods and services are going into the UK market than the rest of the Republic of Ireland. Trade is not just about values, it’s about individual firms, making individual decisions on whether or not to sell to their neighbours,” said Mr. McGuinness.

Businesses were advised that tariffs are custom taxes that governments levy on imported goods. If the UK and EU do not reach a deal, World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs (which are more stringent) will apply. This would mean that cross-Border trade would fall in value by nine per cent. For agri-food products, the decline in trade value would range from three per cent for live animals to 52 per cent for dairy products.

Manager of IntertradeIreland’s Brexit Advisory Service, Mark Sterritt told businesses which trade their products across the Border to consider if small innovations in their product could reduce tariffs. He said businesses should do this in spite of Brexit and said businesses should “never take their eye off the ball.” 

He explained that if a business is trading with a third country (i.e. a country outside the European Union) it must produce a document which outlines where each component of the product is made and where it is going. These cost £23.40 each for members of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and £48.60 for non-members.

In a post-Brexit world, where businesses may seek trading opportunities with other countries, “these documents will have cost implications for staff,” said Mr. Sterritt. “That significant cost will have to be factored in.”

He advised businesses which do not already trade with a third country to take one product and export it to Brazil. “This will give you a feel for how it works, how long it takes and the extra costs – it will be more like £450 when you factor in workforce costs,” he stated.

Mairead McMahon of the FSB told the meeting that drinks company Diageo’s biggest concern around Brexit is the impact it will have on the small businesses in its supply chain. 

She outlined that 73 per cent of all private sector turnover in Northern Ireland comes from small businesses and 60 per cent of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) hire people from their local area.
“I’ve been to lots of these events and there’s talk of contingency plans for Brexit. The average number of employees in SMEs is eight – they don’t have the capacity to build contingency plans; they are busy just trying to get the day in,” she stated.

She pointed out that the current situation at Stormont is unsustainable and concluded: “Political uncertainty is always the number one concern from the members of the Federation Small Businesses.”