North's firms coped better with post-Brexit rules as 2021 wore on – survey

Northern Ireland protocol cited as only fourth most significant challenge for businesses

Fewer Northern Irish companies were struggling to deal with the post-Brexit trading rules under the Northern Ireland Protocol as 2021 wore on, a new survey of businesses shows.

Business representative group Manufacturing NI found that less than 25 per cent of 163 manufacturers surveyed were still struggling with border controls between Britain and Northern Ireland, down from 40 per cent six months earlier.

The survey also found that staff shortages, rather than the protocol, was the most concerning issue for companies. The Brexit trade agreement that has left Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods ranked as the fourth most significant issue for businesses.

The protocol, part of the agreement covering the EU-UK divorce agreement, established special trading rules to prevent Brexit creating a hard border on the island of Ireland.



Almost 58 per cent of companies said the protocol had negatively affected their businesses. That is down from 70 per cent in July and 77 per cent last April.

The lack of readiness or willingness on the part of British suppliers to Northern Ireland to deal with the protocol was cited as a major issue, with one in five businesses reporting that their suppliers in Britain were unwilling to send products to the North because of customs issues.

"Undoubtedly, 2021 was hugely difficult for businesses but as the year went on people became more experienced and more tooled up to actually operate under the protocol," said Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI.

“We finished the year in a much more positive place, particularly with Northern Ireland firms beginning to capitalise on the opportunities in the EU market.”

Mr Kelly said that despite “all the talk” in political circles around concerns about the protocol, it ranked “well down” among “the biggest challenges that people are grappling with”.

“While on the face of it, it appears to be positive and things are going in the right direction, more than a third of businesses believe that that disruption and that harm is going to continue into 2022,” he said.

There was “very solid support in the business community for the protocol to be “made more simple” for Northern Ireland business by the EU and the UK agreeing a new way of operating it.

The EU and the UK have restarted discussions this week to try to find a solution on the dispute over the operation of the protocol.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times