Why can’t Brexit negotiators send clearer signals to Border firms?

More than 100 Grant Thornton staff have registered to take part in Dublin Pride parade

 

Here’s a question: What have a Louth hotelier, a Down ferry operator, a Monaghan metalworker, a cross-border dairy processor, an Antrim farmer, a Fermanagh cement maker, a Tyrone jersey manufacturer and a Donegal publican all got in common?

Answer: A political decision was taken all of a year ago that will likely have the most profound impact on the operations of their businesses, yet nobody can tell them a thing that might allow them to formulate a strategy to cope.

Welcome to planet Brexit, a curious place, especially when it comes to the Border between this State and the North. There, businesses of all shapes and sizes close to the divide are expected by policymakers to plan in a vacuum.

Yes, yes . . . we know that the formal Brexit negotiations have only just started this week and will take two years to conclude. And the policymakers themselves don’t yet know what the final Brexit deal will look like.

But given the fact that a supranational border between the world’s largest trading bloc and the UK will soon divide the businesses mentioned above from some of their customers, suppliers and workers, shouldn’t they be prioritised?

Perhaps with the publication now by negotiators on both sides of an agreed set of principles on what they want the Border to look like?

Or maybe a joint statement stating the desires of both sides relating to the return of customs posts, physical border checks and trade tariffs on this island?

Anything would be better than the bland platitudes and vaguely aspirational, and often contradictory, signals that have been deployed to date.

As outlined in greater detail elsewhere on Friday in this supplement, we visited the businesses mentioned at the beginning of this article to ascertain the potential effect of Brexit on their operation.

All were united in their insistence that their companies need some sort of clarity on the way forward regarding the Border. Two years is too long to wait.

Carlingford, Co Louth hotelier, Terry McKevitt would like policymakers to give a firm signal now as to whether the North will remain part of the customs union. Customs checks on the Cooley peninsula would be damaging for the nascent tourism industry in the region.

Up the road, or across the lough, in Warrenpoint, Co Down, ferry operator Brendan O’Neill has the same fears as McKevitt. The viability of a 10-minute ferry crossing might be altered by delays on both sides due to customs posts.

Bellanode, Co Monaghan engineering company, McAree, says it will consider shifting some operations north of the Border if the Border holds up the flow of steel to its southern operation.

For the dairy industry, Brexit is one thing. But the potential absence of any separate trade deal between the EU and the UK would be even more serious.

It would potentially herald the introduction of WorldTrade Organisation (WTO) border tariffs on goods. Food products attract some of the highest tariffs of around 50 per cent.

Gabrial D’Arcy, the chief executive of Monaghan-Tyrone-Derry dairy processor, LacPatrick, says that if negotiators can’t give clarity on what will happen, could they at least give an indication of what they are seeking? The mostly northen farmers that supply him want the same.

On the Fermanagh-Cavan border at Derrylin, Quinn Industrial Holdings has long dealt with the vagaries of operating across a national border. Its complex straddles it. QIH says it can cope with whatever happens.

But in the meantime, QIH has to make investment decisions and deploy capital, such as a new £3 million hub at Warrenpoint, in an information vacuum.

After the dairy and meat industries, the sector most at risk from a return to WTO tariffs (a worst case scenario . . . but plenty of those have come to pass over the last year) is the textiles industry.

O’Neills International Sportswear in Strabane sends fabric up and down to Dublin every day that is knitted on one side of the Border, dyed on the other, cut back on the other side, and then distributed from both.

Castlefinn, Donegal publican Ronnie McBride remembers the old days when there were 50 guards and three checkpoints around his tiny border village. Any restrictions on freedom of movement would damage the 30 per cent of his weekend custom that flows from across the Border.

All of these businesses employ, pay wages, invest, trade, and pay tax on their respective sides of the Border, and in some cases, on both sides. Uncertainty is carcinogenic to commercial activity. They need answers now.

Firm positions on the Border issues are required from the Brexit negotiations as quickly as possible.

FOOTNOTES

The stereotype of accountants peddled by mean-spirited, snarky business journalists (who, me?) is that they are not the most colourful bunch of folk.

But watch out tomorrow for a ton of them from Dublin-headquartered firm Grant Thornton, many of whom will be waving rainbow flags. More than 100 of the firm’s staff have registered to take part in the Pride parade in Dublin.

It is Grant Thornton’s first time taking part in Pride. It fits neatly into the recent launch of its Embrace diversity and inclusion in the workplace programme.

The programme includes “unconscious bias” training for partners in the firm, initiatives to promote female leadership, and membership of the “30% club”, which aims to increase the number of women on corporate boards.

Grant Thornton has even launched a peppy slogan for its diversity programme, “True 2 me @ GT”.

Meanwhile, Pride has become a coveted event for corporate sponsors attuned to the social change sweeping Ireland, and the marketing opportunities this creates. Sky, Eir, Vodafone, Facebook and Bank of Ireland are among the corporate names who have paid to be involved.

For commercial entities that want to take part in the parade, there is, of course, a fee to take part. It ranges from €500 for a walking group of up to 25 people, to €1,500 for a walking group of over 100, which is presumably what Grant Thornton paid.

Those canny accountants. They always understand the importance of economies of scale.

Not-for-profit streak

While we’re on a not-for-profit streak (we’ll get back to profitability next week), let us also draw your attention to a cycling-related charity event in Kerry next week, in conjunction with Temple Street children’s hospital foundation.

On Friday, a sprinkling of corporate and political figures, including former Fine Gael diaspora minister Jimmy Deenihan, will give a talk promoting the benefits of cycling at Hotel Europe in Killarney, the day before the Ring of Kerry charity cycle. Temple Street is one of 10 charities to benefit from the cycle.

Among those joining Deenihan on the stage to discuss the benefits of cycling for your workforce are ESB International managing director, Ollie Brogan (one of the Dublin GAA tribe), Jim Breen of Pulse Learning, and Olympic running medallist Sonia O’Sullivan.

If you want a healthier workforce, get on your bikes . . .

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