On the day when the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, was due to speak at an all-Ireland civil dialogue conference on Brexit in Dundalk, leader of the DUP Arlene Foster made the news by questioning his understanding of the Irish position with in Europe. On that same day the RHA chief Executive Richard Burnett and myself met with the Minister as well along with MP’s Paul Girvan, and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, to ensure they had the fullest understanding of the implications of Brexit to the haulage industry in Northern Ireland and to discuss ways to bring vitally important new entrants into the industry.
It is absolutely essential that politicians from all sides of the debate understand the effects that a hard or soft Brexit will have to freight movements and even what will happen in the event of “no deal”. Richard Burnett explained that a move away from frictionless and fluid trade will necessitate a permit system that the UK Government is ill prepared for, both in terms of practical knowledge and in the physical volume of permits available.
RHA member Ashley McCulla of McCulla Transport (who kindly hosted the meeting) outlined in very clear terms what his concerns were as an NI business, a business that has seen considerable investment over a good number of years to a point where they employ over 250 people.
We pointed out that the uncertainty around Brexit has exacerbated the driver shortage issue. The poor exchange rate means that the pool of Eastern European drivers who have underpinned our industry for so long are returning home, or at least to central Europe to earn their living and there are no clearly funded avenues for bringing indigenous drivers despite many millions of pounds going to Government in the form of the training levy.
We have taken away a number of actions from all sides and further work will be done to try to set up a pilot scheme aimed at bringing a tranche of new drivers into the industry and getting hauliers concerns to the ears of those making the decisions on Brexit.
It is vital that all the parties across the UK and Irish political sphere listen to the transport and logistics sector. Ours is is the 5th biggest employer in the UK and absolutely vital to the coffers of UK plc, so politicians of all political colours and from all sides of the debate must listen to the concerns of their haulier constituents or we face a future where one of the biggest industries in the UK let alone Northern Ireland is under resourced, under prepared and difficult to do business with.
These talks are being carried out across the UK as concerns about risks to fluid movement through ports are concerning hauliers from Shetland to Kent and Northern Ireland is no different. There are undoubted opportunities should our Government get this right but at the minute there is little confidence that this is the case and our industry is a case in point.
Most politicians and political parties feel they know a bit about how haulage works, but they are always surprised when we help them understand the scale and complexity of the industry and under what restraints even the most basic of freight journeys take place. The decision makers MUST understand how the supply chain works, what compliance steps hauliers undertake, what regulations are in force and what the cost of delay every haulier faces for each and every freight journey.
Again, I would call on every politician from every party to listen to the hauliers in your constituencies and understand their concerns, then go to your parliamentary and party meetings with the knowledge required to protect their interests, their livelihoods and their futures.