The UK's draft EU withdrawal agreement "may not be perfect" but it is "vastly preferable" to a "no deal" Brexit, according to the chairman of one of the North's largest business organisations.
Brian Irwin, the chair of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), said the organisation welcomed the UK agreement because it was a "positive development" in the ongoing Brexit negotiations. The group's members directly employ 22,000 people.
"We would be hopeful that this will enable more substantive talks around our future trading relationship with the EU," said Mr Irwin who is also the chairman of Portadown-based Irwin's Bakery which employs 400 people.
Brexit was the main topic of conversation at the NIFDA’s annual dinner on Thursday night in Belfast.
Mr Irwin said that no one in the organisation was in any doubt that “a no deal outcome would be disastrous for Northern Ireland, particularly the agri-food sector”.
Mr Irwin said: “We simply could not absorb increased customs, tariffs and regulatory costs on trade between Northern Ireland and the EU.
"Whilst this agreement may not be perfect, and further clarification on certain aspects will be required, it is vastly preferable to a no deal scenario and offers us an effective insurance policy in the interim period until a new trading relationship is agreed. A UK-wide solution that avoids a hard border and allows Northern Irish firms frictionless access to markets in Britain, Republic of Ireland, and the European Union offers our members the best chance of surviving in a post-Brexit world."
Meanwhile the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) said it also "cautiously" welcomes the UK's draft agreement but it believes overall it is "not ideal". The UFU position will be viewed as significant because the group has traditionally been close to the unionist tradition.
The president of the UFU, Ivor Ferguson said, "The situation remains very fluid and we are reviewing the document in detail. Ultimately, we would like a UK-wide solution - full stop. However, this agreement does provide an insurance policy to prevent a no deal outcome, which would be disastrous for farm businesses and the economy in Northern Ireland."
Mr Ferguson said the UFU has always believed that any deal “must allow the agriculture industry free and frictionless trade with the EU”.
“Agri-food is the cornerstone of the Northern Ireland economy and any significant barriers to trade between NI and EU member states, NI and the Republic of Ireland, or NI and Great Britain would have a major impact,” he added.