‘If it is delayed, it goes off’: What Brexit means for Irish food importers

‘We are in the 11th hour and suddenly everyone is saying: let’s put a plan together’

"The problem is nobody knows," says fruit and vegetable wholesaler Justin Leonard about what kind of Brexit there might be, hard or soft, and what either might mean for his business.

Leonard is the fourth-generation of his family to run Jackie Leonard & Sons, a 126-year-old fruit and veg wholesaler, Dublin's oldest. Brexit could have a major effect on Irish fruit and veg importers such as Leonard and others in the Fruit Market in Dublin's north inner city.

Some 90 per cent of the fruits Leonard sells come from Europe and at least 50 per cent of the vegetables are sourced from mainland Europe or the UK. Even 20 per cent of his potatoes come from the UK.

“If we have a hard Brexit, all our product we source in Northern Ireland – mushrooms, cooking apples from Co Armagh, juices – they are all going to become non-EU products,” he said.


“It is not going to be a case of jumping in your car and coming down the M1 across the Border from the North. Nobody knows what will happen. Nobody can legislate for what will happen.”

Leonard says the Government cannot say for certain what they may or may not be implementing yet to prepare for Brexit, and there are fewer than 100 days until the UK leaves the EU at the end of March.

He believes Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney is being a "little disingenuous" by saying that the purchase of land at Dublin Port by the end of March would "solve the problem of a backlog of trucks".

“We are in the 11th hour and suddenly everyone is saying, ‘Let’s put a plan together’. It doesn’t happen like that,” he says.

He is concerned that customs clearance agents, who mostly vanished with the disappearance of borders in the 1990s with the opening of the EU single market, will not return in time to deal with Brexit.

“We are not going to suddenly materialise customs clearance agents overnight and definitely not by March 31st,” he says.

Border delays

Fruit importers fear what customs checks might mean to the fruit and veg being brought into the country on the backs of trucks and the effect of a possible return of days-long delays at borders.

Philip Fitzpatrick of Caterway fruit and veg wholesalers says restrictions on the UK land-bridge route to Europe would mean taking the longer, direct ferries, which face a greater risk of delays from stormy weather.

“We are hoping there will be some kind of deal, obviously, and we will be able to keep the land bridge. But if there is not, we will have to look for a direct ferry,” he said.

In this business, quick deliveries are everything; longer journeys mean possible rotten produce.

“You are talking about fresh products, and if it is delayed, it goes off,” said Maurice Lawlor, who has been working in the family business J&N Lawlor Fruit Merchants for 42 years.

“The quality of the product when it hits the shops might not be as good as what it is now.”