Preparing for Brexit: Aodhán Connolly

Nov 18, 2020

Aodhán Connolly is the Director of the NI Retail Consortium, responsible for engagement with the NI Assembly, Westminster and Europe.  He has been to the fore of the Brexit debate with the NIRC’s Fair Deal for Consumers Brexit campaign, and is part of the UK Government’s Joint Consultative Committee on Customs for Northern Ireland and the UK Government’s NI Business Engagement Forum. He is also the Convenor of the Northern Ireland Business Brexit group. Aodhán took some time out to talk to us about the complexities Brexit will bring in the future, especially for retailers based in Northern Ireland.

1. How has the direction of your work changed since the onset of Brexit?

This has been the most challenging few years in my career given the advent of Brexit, and, of course, the Coronavirus. My workload has doubled, and I have found myself on not just the national stage but the international stage when it comes to Committee evidence, press and seminars. While it has been really hard work, I have met some hugely interesting and wonderful people along the way, some of whom I am sure will be lifelong friends.

2. How has your business/organisation prepared for Brexit?

How we have prepared is by helping others to prepare – not just our members but their supply chains too. We have become a conduit of information from the UK government and the EU to businesses. We have also tried to make the changes due to Brexit more tangible, in order to understand how they will affect business but also how they will affect consumers. That is particularly important when you consider that NI households have half of the discretionary income of GB households. That means that it will be those who can least afford it who will be affected most.

3. What is the biggest Brexit challenge currently facing businesses in your experience?

The biggest challenge is the uncertainty. There simply is not the clarity on what they need to do to be ready on 1 January and with just a few weeks left until the end of the transition period, even if we do get the detail that we need now, it is unlikely that all retailers or their supply chains will be ready for this fundamental change in how we do business. We still need to know what goods are at risk, how a rebate system will work, and/or whether or not expensive SPS certificates will be needed. There are over 80 questions that need answers for the retail industry and this list is growing daily.

4. What has changed for the better in the profession since you started working as a professional?

Firstly, in the Public Affairs arena, this past 20 years have broken down a lot of barriers that there were. It is now more of a meritocracy. More women are leading teams and companies and young people with talent are rising through the ranks no matter what their background. There is still work to be done, especially in public facing areas, but some progress has been made.

Secondly, one of the few good things to come from the Brexit debate has been breaking down barriers of another kind. If you had told me five years ago that I would be working closely and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with manufacturing, freight, farming or food processing businesses, I would have thought you were mad. Trade bodies were used to siloed working and some were just not natural bedfellows, while others were almost hostile to each other. That is no longer true. Through working together on boards such as the NI Business Brexit Working Group, there is a better understanding of where each other is coming from and myths and misperceptions have been removed.

5. If you were to get to negotiate one aspect of Brexit as chief negotiator, which one would it be?

There are loads of things that need to be sorted but for me it would be a wide-ranging audited and certified supply chain for retailers that would encompass everything from SPS to customs thereby removing friction and keeping choice and affordability for NI households. However, even with a scheme like that there would be cost rises. No matter what Brexit we are going to see, there will be cost increases.

6. With the added strain of recovery from the pandemic, do you think that the business community on the island of Ireland is ready for Brexit?

I don’t believe businesses are fully prepared, and for several reasons. While some may know how to prepare for certain situations, others simply do not believe anything is going to change. Believe me there is no good SPS or customs fairy that will solve the complexities coming down the line. Other still do not have the bandwidth to deal with all of this while dealing with the pandemic.

However, there are some things NI businesses in particular can do to do prepare:

  1. Assess your exposure to changes
  2. Register for the Trader Support Service
  3. Get an EORI number
  4. Find out the commodity code for goods you buy or sell
  5. Speak to your haulier
  6. Speak to suppliers
  7. Check regulations that apply to your goods
  8. Consider your data
  9. Apply for the EU Settlement Scheme
  10. Apply for an Immigration Sponsorship Licence