Northern Irish businesses want a last minute grace period to keep British trade flowing after new Brexit arrangements come into force on January 1.
Manufacturers, retailers and farmers said they would not be ready for new customs procedures for Northern Ireland, blaming a lack of detail from the Government and the coronavirus pandemic.
“We need an implementation period, you can call it an adjustment period, you can call it the pink fluffy bunny period if you like we don’t care what it is”, said Aodhán Connelly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium.
“These are fundamental and structural changes to how you do business.”
Steven Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, added: “We quite simply don’t have the detail, nor the time required, and, with the best will in the world in six weeks we won’t get there,” said.
The UK leaves the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market on January 1 after the end of the transition period. Northern Ireland will continue to follow some EU rules to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. Instead there will be a customs border in the Irish Sea.
“Countless” businesses and communities in Northern Ireland are expressing “frustration, anxiety and fear” over Brexit trading arrangements with 43 days until the end of the transition period, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Lou Haigh said.
“Thousands of businesses still do not know the bare basics of how they will trade with Great Britain in just six weeks’ time,” she said as she asked an urgent question in the House of Commons.
Business leaders said the trade with mainland Britain was vital to their businesses and that they needed guarantees that their goods would not be stopped in Scotland and Wales.
Mr Kelly said that manufacturers were pinning their hopes on UK and EU negotiators successfully striking a free trade deal before the end of year deadline, as well as a grace period and guarantees from the UK and EU that trade could continue as normal.
The EU would have to agree to waive export declarations on Northern Irish goods being exported to Britain, while the UK would not stop goods entering mainland Britain.
The Government has already conceded it will not be ready to impose full border checks on EU goods entering the UK on January 1. Instead it will phase in the controls over six months. The EU says it will be ready to perform full checks on UK imports from January 1.
A ‘no trade deal’ Brexit would turn the customs border from “a paper border to a brick border”, Mr Connelly warned.
In a debate on the Northern Irish protocol in the Commons, the DUP’s Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said there was cross party and cross community support “for a period of time for implementation of these measures to allow our businesses, supermarkets and others to prepare properly.”
Northern Ireland Minister Robin Walker said that would be “one of the most sensible ways” of tackling the issue.
In a separate scrutiny committee, Northern Ireland’s Justice minister told MPs the country faced a “potential bonanza” of organised crime unless the UK strikes a security agreement with the EU during the ongoing trade talks.
Naomi Long, minister of justice at the Northern Ireland executive, said gangsters would exploit gaps in cross-border judicial cooperation created by Brexit after the end of transition.
If there is no deal, the UK and Ireland would fall back on laws for extradition dating back to the 1950s, she said.
Extradition times could be lengthened to up to two years from as little as six weeks with the European Arrest Warrant, which the UK leaves at the end of the year.
“You can’t fight crime in 2020 with 1950 tools,” the former MEP said as she credited existing judicial cooperation with jailing many dangerous criminals.
Ms Long warned there would also be no legal basis for sharing intelligence and data between Northern Irish and Irish police or other EU forces.
She told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee the Government should at a bare minimum strike a comprehensive bilateral deal on security, and judicial cooperation was needed with the Republic.
“There is always in Northern Ireland the potential for unrest if people are politically disturbed by the workings of Brexit,” she said.
“There is the capacity for expansion of black market activity when differentials and tariffs on trading arrangements exist,” she warned referring to the new customs arrangements.
Negotiations over security and judicial cooperation are continuing at the same time as trade talks in Brussels.
Work towards a new extradition treaty is progressing well after the UK committed to remaining in the European Convention of Human Rights.
A UK government spokesperson said, "We have launched an unprecedented £200 million Trader Support Service and will continue to publish guidance as arrangements are finalised.
"Further measures to support agrifood traders will be announced shortly and we are working to resolve all outstanding issues for supermarkets and other traders through the Joint Committee, where we have agreed an intensified process of engagement with the EU."
EU officials said that the new arrangements would come into force on January 1 and there would be no extension to that deadline.