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Gray matter on Northern Ireland trade deal

M.E.G’s Michael Gray explains how agreement can reopen business with EU


Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s long-awaited trade agreement for Northern Ireland has far-reaching consequences for the greeting card industry and all businesses which trade with the European Union.

While Mr Sunak is seeking to secure parliamentary support for his deal with the EU on post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, he said it is a “huge step forward” for the people of the province, although its success is likely to depend on whether the Democratic Unionist Party will end its power-sharing boycott at Belfast’s Parliament Buildings in Stormont.

The party has said the proposals go “some way” to addressing concerns although some issues remain, while Sinn Féin has welcomed the deal and called for the DUP to return to devolved government in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Having worked in the UK greeting card industry for many years, with Statics and then Really Good/Soul, Michael Gray moved to Northern Ireland 21 years ago where he set up M.E.G Cards & Gifts with wife Lisa in Coleraine, and now distributes leading greetings and stationery brands including The Art File, Bexy Boo, The Gifted Stationery Company, Great British Card Company, Ling Design, Molly Mae, Penny Kennedy, Portico, and Rachel Ellen Designs.

Here Mike explains what he sees as the nuances of the Northern Ireland trade deal…

“It’s hard to believe that six years after the vote, more than two years since Brexit and that ‘oven-ready deal’, we have finally reach a trade agreement with the European Union that overrides the Northern Irish protocol with the Windsor agreement.

Above: Prime minister Rishi Sunak is seeking parliamentary approval for the EU trade deal
Above: Prime minister Rishi Sunak is seeking parliamentary approval for the EU trade deal

“For those of us living and trading in Northern Ireland, we’re hoping this results in much more than the promise of ‘unfettered business’ and that it brings our executive back together and allows the dissolved government to sit once again as, while the talk of the past couple of days has included the ‘Stormont brake’, sadly all we have had for the past year is a ‘broken Stormont’.

“From a purely business view greeting cards have fared much better than many other industries – the checks that have applied to food, agriculture and medicine, to name a few, have resulted in huge amounts of paperwork and, in many instances, products just not being available in Northern Ireland but, fortunately, that has not been the case  with cards and most gifts.

Above: Mike Gray (left) with House of Cards’ Miles Robinson and Max Publishing’s Sue Marks at The Retas last July
Above: Mike Gray (left) with House of Cards’ Miles Robinson and Max Publishing’s Sue Marks at The Retas last July

“There has been plenty of pain, though, with the paperwork of every delivery having to clear customs before leaving the mainland and being shipped to Northern Ireland, as well as supplementary declarations being made on a monthly basis but this looks as though it will now be done away with as all goods destined to stay in NI will pass through a green Northern Ireland-only channel at the ports with goods travelling on to the Republic Of Ireland facing checks as they currently do via a red lane.

“Goods passing through the green channel will need no more paperwork than if they were being sent from Bristol to Birmingham, including online orders and this will be policed by a trusted traders scheme which, I assume, both parties will need to sign up to.

“Fortunately, thanks to our fabulous suppliers understanding the system currently in place we have suffered very few supply issues and, as we’re based in Northern Ireland, we’ve found it very easy to supply into both Ireland and the wider European market. I would hope that the companies that stopped supplying to Northern Ireland post-Brexit will look again now that delivery should be as straightforward as shipping from Liverpool to London.

“While none of this changes the issues involved in shipping to Ireland, it does leave Northern Ireland, to quote Rushi Sunak, in a ‘unique position in the entire world in having privileged access, not just to the UK market but also the European single market, making it possibly the world’s most exciting economic zone’.

“We’ll have to wait to see if Northern Ireland really does become the next Hong Kong but certainly it looks as though we’ll finally have the “unfettered trade” we were promised and, for businesses based here, they truly are a ‘stepping stone’ into the Irish market and beyond in to the European single market.”

Top: Michael Gray has run M.E.G Cards & Gifts for 21 years

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