Marks & Spencer’s chairman Archie Norman has warned of a political “running sore of symbolic proportions” if UK chilled products are banned in Northern Ireland.
Mr Norman also said consumers in Northern Ireland faced higher prices and empty shelves as a result of the “pointless and byzantine” way post-Brexit rules are being enforced.
The retail boss – and former Tory MP – made the high-profile intervention in the so-called “sausage wars” stand-off between the UK and European Union in a letter to Brexit minister Lord Frost.
Under the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed between London and Brussels, Northern Ireland effectively remains part of the EU single market.
The arrangement is designed to avoid a hard border between the North and the Republic of Ireland but has also resulted in a customs border effectively going up in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland, itself politically controversial.
Shipments of chilled meats such as sausages from third countries into the EU’s single market are banned.
M&S shipments to the Republic as well as into continental Europe are already affected by this.
A grace period agreed between the UK and EU means these products can continue to be shipped to Northern Ireland for now – but that period runs out at the end of September.
Mr Norman’s intervention highlighted the company’s commitment to Northern Ireland as a retailer that continued to trade and invest there throughout the Troubles of past decades.
“However, the issues we are facing as a direct result of the current customs arrangements and compliance regime to the Republic and, in all likelihood in the North are very threatening to our business,” Mr Norman said in his letter to Lord Frost, which was first reported by the BBC.
“It is not the overall purposes of the customs union that are the problem,” Mr Norman added.
“It is the pointless and byzantine way in which the regime is enforced that is so business destructive.”
Mr Norman called for a major shake-up of the compliance regime currently in force which could result in veterinary checks on up to 165 lorries and 120,000 pages of paperwork being produced per week once applied to Northern Ireland.
He also called for a deferment of the ban on certain products going into Northern Ireland, alongside undertakings that those products would not be moved on into the Republic.
“We believe that for political reasons alone it will be a running sore of symbolic proportions to implement a ban on much liked chilled products into Northern Ireland,” Mr Norman said.
“And it will be impossible for retailers to find alternative supply in the short term.
“Therefore, we should recognise the special place Northern Ireland has by not banning the products we cannot send to other EU markets subject to undertakings regarding onwards movement into the EU.”
M&S added that while it would put its “shoulder to the wheel” to keep a lid on prices there was “no other outcome for consumers in Northern Ireland in the end other than higher prices given the inflationary pressures being put onto retailers by the regulatory regime”.
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