Apparently, policy makers in Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels aspire to maintaining the ‘frictionless border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the post-Brexit era. But is anyone actually doing anything to make it happen?
I’m a veterinary surgeon and County Down is home for me. During my career, I’ve worked in farm animal and equine practice, research and academia, business development and consultancy in animal sciences and aquaculture.
I recently gave evidence to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the potential impact of EU exit on the livestock sector. During the session, I provided evidence and was quizzed on the leadership of veterinary surgeons in food safety, food traceability, sustainability and animal welfare as well as the – perhaps more obvious – role in animal health.
A week before, Barbara Erwin, Chair of the Horticulture Forum of Northern Ireland gave evidence to the same Committee.
Following that session she wrote a blog on this site, referring to the mild, wet climate in the province which is superb for horticulture: growing mushrooms, potatoes and other vegetables in addition to ‘hanging baskets’ and ‘grow your own fruit and veg’.
But the climate of the island of Ireland is also world-renowned for the production of another important crop – grass!
This versatile product is the bedrock of the livestock industry in Ireland – North and South. This sector has become increasingly integrated through recent decades: each year, roughly 400,000 sheep travel from the North to the South to be processed.
A similar number of pigs travel in the opposite direction and 800m litres of liquid milk seamlessly traverse the border, per annum, for processing.
There is a palpable appetite to retain free movement of agricultural produce in both directions across the border after Brexit. A great deal of attention has been directed to avoiding the need for customs checks at the border.
However, unless a comprehensive deal is negotiated where regulatory alignment on animal health standards is also retained, it is likely that there will be a need for checks at the border for biosecurity purposes.
This conflicts with the aim of avoiding border infrastructure. EU Regulation 882/2004, (soon to be replaced by 625/2017) requires border inspection posts for sanitary and phyto-sanitary checks in the immediate vicinity of the border, and as Michel Barnier has stated that EU border controls could be applied to “100 % of imports of live animals and products of animal origin”.
Then there’s also the issue of who might undertake these border inspections. There is currently a significant shortage of qualified veterinary surgeons throughout the UK, and we have called on government to return the veterinary profession to the Shortage Occupation List.
But it’s also crucial that any Brexit deal secures the rights of EU-qualified vets to work in the UK.
It follows that these checks might also have to extend to horses and companion animals – pets, but also guide dogs – and this appeared to be news to the politicians I spoke to at Westminster.
Currently, the approach taken by the authorities is pragmatic and risk-based, and this can be facilitated while we are within the EU.
However, this will change when the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland becomes an EU frontier in March next year!
The island of Ireland is considered to be a ‘single epidemiological unit’ in terms of the transmission of animal diseases.
For this reason, collaboration between Northern Ireland and Ireland has been mainstreamed – thanks in part to the context of common EU membership where regulation is largely aligned North and South.
Government bodies – the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) in the Republic and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in the North – and their respective laboratories have produced all-island livestock disease surveillance reports through cross-border collaboration for many years now.
This synergy has also seen the island cleared of bovine brucellosis through combined efforts by the governments north and south.
In recent years, there has been a particular focus on industry-government collaboration in the control of endemic infectious diseases of livestock; Animal Health Ireland and Animal Health & Welfare Northern Ireland have demonstrated superb leadership in the last few years in relation to the control of bovine viral diarrhoea virus (BVD), with programmes in development for Johne’s disease, leptospirosis and infectious bovine rhino-tracheitis (IBR).
To be clear, the British Veterinary Association would prefer to see the ongoing presence of a frictionless border and North-South collaboration on animal health.
We would encourage politicians to engage in negotiations to maintain this position – and secure a deal – for farmers and their livestock, at the earliest opportunity.
By Simon Doherty, Junior Vice-President of the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and a past-president of the Northern Ireland Branch of BVA. ‘Brexit and the Veterinary Profession’ declares the vision of the veterinary profession across several areas of public policy relating to Brexit: workforce, animal health, animal welfare, veterinary medicines, agriculture and trade.