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Northern Ireland businesses are cautiously optimistic about EU trade agreement

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This past week, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak concluded negotiations with the European Union on an updated plan for trading arrangements in Northern Ireland. Since Brexit, the rules on moving goods there have remained a contentious topic for politicians and business owners alike. Willem Marx has this report.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: It's a quiet day at Desk Warehouse, an office furniture supply company in the northern Irish capital of Belfast. But for owner Allister Mulligan, the past few years have been busy, not always for the best of reasons.

ALLISTER MULLIGAN: Things have been a mess in terms of sourcing goods from the rest of mainland U.K., bureaucracy caused by Brexit.

MARX: Mulligan, who says most people in Northern Ireland consider Brexit a mistake, has seen his supply chain completely transformed over the past couple of years.

MULLIGAN: We probably lost, I think, four suppliers who are all very, very reputable companies, but they literally can't be bothered with the hassle of trying to deliver into Northern Ireland.

MARX: That hassle comes down to extra paperwork that the Brexit deal signed by Boris Johnson created for companies in Northern Ireland that buy things from elsewhere in the U.K. That's because the European Union didn't want anything from Britain turning up in Europe without it facing customs checks on Northern Ireland was considered a potential back door.

MULLIGAN: The ironic thing has been we source a lot of product from Eastern Europe, particularly from Lithuania and Poland. That's easy to do, absolutely no problems, no obscure or unnecessary paperwork. Yet if we buy from suppliers in England who want to supply us directly and who need to fill out paperwork and themselves quite often just refuse to do it because it's so difficult...

MARX: As a consequence, he started buying from further afield, including China, and he stopped selling into mainland U.K., once a fifth of his business. And he says he hasn't been able to hire more employees, so he actually seems quite excited about Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's newly announced deal with the EU, known as the Windsor Framework.

MULLIGAN: I'm hoping that that is going to radically change what we're doing at the moment and reduce or replace a lot of the unnecessary paperwork we have to do.

MARX: Beyond the bureaucracy, another big challenge has been the lack of an active government in Northern Ireland for the past year. A major pro-U.K. political party has been refusing to participate in the local Parliament in protest at a key part of the original Brexit deal known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. They say it created an artificial barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

SARAH WILLIAMS: Being held to ransom over the protocol by one particular party is extremely frustrating.

MARX: Sarah Williams (ph) works in the arts in Belfast, where she spoke to NPR in a local cafe.

WILLIAMS: We have a lot we want to progress across all the areas that we work in, and we are constantly being held up with barriers because we don't have a government who can help make those decisions.

MARX: Ross Johnston runs a stationery store called the Hunter Paper Company and says Sunak's new deal will be well received if it can somehow help kickstart political compromise in the north.

ROSS JOHNSTON: If it gets the parties back around the table and talking to each other and hopefully back into government, which is what we direly need, then yes, it is a positive thing.

MARX: Allister Mulligan, the furniture business owner, hopes for the same - that the politicians can look forward, just as most people in Northern Ireland have managed to do, given the country's violent history.

MULLIGAN: We've had to move on. And the same applies with the current situation. We'll have to compromise. We'll have to move on for sake of politics and civility in this country.

MARX: And he says, for a less bureaucratic business future. For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx