Coveney fumes as Tory hopefuls continue Brexit bluster

Business Week: also in the news was spending, jobs, Ryanair and Dublin Port

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt at this week’s ITV Conservative leadership debate.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt at this week’s ITV Conservative leadership debate.

 

An ITV face-off between Tory leadership candidates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt this week left Tánaiste Simon Coveney with his head in his hands.

On the one hand, the debate – in which both men spoke of reopening the withdrawal agreement with the EU and making changes to the backstop – should not have come as much surprise.

On the other, perhaps with time running out and the debate coming just hours after the Government published its bleakest assessment to date on Brexit, Coveney had simply reached the end of his tether.

An “utterly disingenuous debate”, he called it, from “people who should know better”, with both men “well aware of the facts”. As Minister for Foreign Affairs, Coveney has dealt directly with Hunt, who is his UK counterpart, and Johnson, his predecessor.

To be fair to him, Coveney was speaking at a behind closed doors meeting of the Brexit stakeholder forum, but given the group includes members of the opposition as well as a number of civic society figures, the leak could hardly have come as much of a surprise.

Earlier, Coveney presented a 100-page Brexit contingency plan to Cabinet with three memos covering preparations in about 20 areas, including aviation, the ports, road haulage, retail, tourism and medicines.

On his way in, he told reporters a no-deal Brexit would mean a “fundamental disruption” to how the all-island economy functions, and would put strain on both trade and the political structures that underpin it.

Later, the Government signalled for the first time that checks on some goods imported from the North will be necessary after a no-deal Brexit to protect the single market, though Coveney insisted they would not be “on the Border or close to it”.

Businesses, and particularly those in Border counties, were told to immediately draw up strategies to be implemented post-Brexit, and warned not to expect a crash-out exit to be averted by a last-minute extension to article 50 such as occurred in March.

A report from the Central Bank was not much cheerier, warning Irish house prices could fall in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which would also lead to a hit on employment levels, incomes and the financial standing of the banking sector.

It also emerged this week that Revenue has hired 453 people in preparation for Brexit, with 370 of these recruited in 2019. Most of the new roles were required to backfill new customs positions from which existing Revenue staff have been assigned.

In the North, a Stormont report suggested 40,000 jobs could be at risk, while a no-deal scenario could lead to a cessation of the North-South agri-food trade worth more than £800 million (€892 million), and an increase in the cost of business of 14.5 per cent for the service sector.

People spending more despite warnings

Irish citizens appear to have loosened the purse strings on the back of all the positive talk about the economy, but two separate reports this week issued yet more warnings of turbulent times ahead.

The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office showed Irish people spent almost €142 billion last year, up from nearly €134 million the year before.

People spent €22 billion on housing, including rent, local government charges and repairs, 10 per cent more than in 2017. They paid €34.8 billion in tax on incomes and wealth, 8 per cent more than in 2017, when the figure was €32.2 billion.

Personal consumption of goods and services – how people spend their cash – grew 3.4 per cent.

Gross domestic product, which measures the Republic’s total income, grew 8.2 per cent to €324 billion. Gross national product – which excludes multinational profits – rose 6.5 per cent to €253 billion.

However, reports from the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) and the European Commission suggested that the good times could yet come to a shuddering halt.

The NCC highlighted the “concentrated” nature of the domestic economy which, it said, is too dependent on a small number of companies in a small number of sectors. This leaves the economy vulnerable to shocks.

The commission said Ireland’s economic outlook remains “clouded in uncertainty”, due to Brexit and “the difficult-to-predict activities of multinationals” which “could drive headline growth in either direction”.

“The risk of overheating could increase in the near term”, the report added, cautioning the Government against the use of windfall corporation tax receipts to pay for current spending and stimulating demand.

On the jobs front, Bord na Móna is to lay off nearly 150 workers at its plant in Co Longford, while close to 100 jobs are to go at the ESB’s coal-fired Moneypoint power station in Clare.

Elsewhere, 65 staff employed at Coca-Cola in Drogheda have been told they are losing their jobs; while Clare-based Avara Shannon Pharmaceutical Services, employing more than 110 people, is to be wound up.

In better news, Deutsche Bank’s 750-strong workforce in Ireland could escape the worst of a global staff cull with sources suggesting job losses here will be “minimal”. Also, Messagebird, a Dutch messaging company, is to create 50 jobs in Dublin.

Bad week for Ryanair

Budget airline Ryanair blamed delays in the delivery of new aircraft and tough trading conditions as it revealed it was offering unpaid leave to pilots and warned that it may have to close bases.

The airline is also to lose chief operations officer Peter Bellew who is leaving the airline at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the Irish Aviation Authority has invested €30 million in a system that could potentially save lives by pinpointing an aircraft’s location anywhere in the world when an emergency hits.

Its communications base at Ballygirreen, Co Clare, has started operating the satellite-based system that can pinpoint an aircraft’s location even in remote areas such as the north Atlantic, which radar does not cover.

Finally, Dublin Port is seeking planning permission for an estimated €320 million worth of projects that make up the second stage of its main expansion plan that will bring it to “its maximum and ultimate capacity” by 2040.

The plan provides for a new roll-on roll-off jetty for ferries up to 240m long; the redevelopment of an oil berth so it can handle container traffic; the re-orientation of another existing berth; and the consolidation of passenger terminals.