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‘I fear that any Border will cause a default back to 10 years ago’

Brexit Proof Q&A: Walled City Brewery co-founder James Huey

Walled City Brewery co-founder James Huey: “As a small family business we have very few spare resources to build contingency plans for Brexit.”

The Walled City Brewery is based in the rejuvenated Ebrington Square in Derry on what was once the British army barracks during the Troubles. James Huey opened this fully-operating brewery in 2015 on the same site as his restaurant making it the first of its kind in the country. He has since scooped 15 awards including best gastropub in Ireland 2017-2018.

What was your reaction when you heard the UK had voted to leave the European Union?

I was devastated and in complete shock. From starting the business in 2015, I was hugely energised and hopeful about the opportunities for all-island tourism. Northern Ireland had struggled for so long to be perceived as a “safe” destination and this was now being unlocked with huge potential for tourists to do a complete loop of the island and benefiting all the peripheries.

So when the referendum result came through it felt like all these opportunities would be either lost or significantly diminished.


How is your business likely to be affected?

We are already seeing a drop-off in our scheduled coach party numbers. The tour operators themselves are struggling to sell in a market which is very uncertain. Our three-year business plan was written on the back of projected coach numbers, so we have had to diversify into other areas to increase revenue.

Are you stockpiling goods and/or raw materials?

No. One of the unique selling points of craft beer is that we use the freshest malted hops and barley so we do not want to compromise on quality.

How much do you rely on exports or the supply of materials across the Border?

We don't export our goods yet. However, we are planning to in the next 18 months. The uncertainty around Brexit has forced us to look at markets other than the European Union, which would have been our first partner originally.

When did you begin preparing for Brexit and what contingency plans have you put in place so far?

As a small family business we have very few spare resources to build contingency plans for Brexit. We have created new products which lean on the local market as opposed to the tourist market. However, disposable income is very low in the northwest and it is proving a challenge.

Does Brexit present any opportunities for your business?

The only opportunity when Brexit is implemented is that we can stop talking about Brexit and focus on other, more pressing matters such as climate change and mental health.

Would you like to see a second referendum on Brexit?

Yes. I’ll type up the ballot papers myself.

When do you expect to be Brexit-ready?

We are Brexit-ready by having a diversified product portfolio. We realised at the genesis of this business that we needed a wide and diverse range of products to mitigate against major shocks such as this.

How might the Irish or British governments, or the EU, help ease the pain of Brexit for your company or sector?

It’s the uncertainty which is the big issue for me as it creates volatility and oxygen to individuals and groups who would usually be muted. We just need a clear road map for how this is going to play out – although I know this won’t be available any time soon.

How do you think the Irish and British governments have handled the Brexit negotiations?

For me, the Irish Government has acted with integrity and dignity, defending the rights of the people of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. The British government has been the complete opposite and needs to come and visit the Border region to fully understand the complex relationships and cultural fabric which has been so carefully stitched back together after the Troubles.

What’s your best/worst-case scenario?

Best-case scenario is that a people’s vote is generated, in which case I have no doubt we will remain in the EU. The worst case scenario is a no-deal Brexit which will decimate the entire Border economy and potentially reignite pockets of violence in the North.

Looking out five years, how do you think your business or industry will have changed as a result of Brexit?

Hospitality and tourism will remain buoyant in the Republic of Ireland: I just fear that any kind of Border will cause a default back to 10 years ago when most international (and Republic of Ireland) tourists would not venture North.