Brexit: Northern businesses grow itchy and impatient

‘We need a deal and we need politicians to hurry up and do it,’ say business leaders

Belfast at dawn. Photograph: iStock

Belfast at dawn. Photograph: iStock


Businesses in the North say they are losing contracts and jobs are under threat and they feel “let down” as UK prime minister Theresa May seeks to renegotiate her Brexit deal with the EU.

Business, industry and farming leaders in the North had strongly supported Mrs May’s Brexit initial withdrawal agreement because they saw it as being better than a no-deal Brexit, despite being “flawed”.

Mrs May had on a number of occasions publicly thanked major industry groups representing major employers in the North including the Confederation of British Industry NI, the NI Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturing NI, Hospitality Ulster and the Ulster Farmers’ Union, for backing her withdrawal deal and the backstop arrangement.

Industry leaders said businesses in the North on Wednesday were “disappointed, despondent and dismayed” by the British parliament’s vote to send Mrs May back to the EU to renegotiate a fresh Brexit deal because it created fresh uncertainty.

Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce said there was a noticeable sense of pessimism among firms about the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Ms McGregor said: “Businesses are spending millions of pounds trying to plan for Brexit without any certainty – they’re investing in cold storage options, they are opening offices in the South and now they are potentially being taken down a different path than the withdrawal agreement.

“Firms are losing contracts and orders because they cannot guarantee supply and this instability is jeopardising jobs in Northern Ireland. We need a deal and we need politicians to hurry up and do it to remove the disruption to trade.”

According to industry group Manufacturing NI, firms in the North believe “time is running out” and are confused about Mrs May’s apparent change of heart on the backstop.

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said there was a certain level of confusion in the business community on Thursday about Theresa May’s apparent change of heart when it came to the backstop.

“There were no shortage of commitments given to Northern Ireland and the backstop was one of them so now our members are very unsettled by what is unfolding because they don’t what it might mean for them,” said the group’s chief executive, Stephen Kelly.

“Businesses in Northern Ireland were asked to support the withdrawal agreement and they did that and now it seems that the UK parliament is turning their back on them.

“Firms are losing customers because of the uncertainty – their customers are nervous that they won’t or can’t deliver and the consequence of that is that it’s manufacturers that are losing out,” Mr Kelly warned.

He has appealed to his members not to act on their concerns until after the prime minister’s next “meaningful vote” on February 13th.

‘We need a deal’

But in the meantime, according to Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, there is a clear and unanimous message coming from businesses in every sector in the North – “we need a deal”.

Mr Neill said: “No one is prepared for a no-deal Brexit, a no-deal Brexit cannot be considered and it cannot be allowed to happen just by accident.

“There has to be a deal that meets the needs of our industry – that allows us unfettered access to the rest of the UK, the Republic of Ireland and access to people and labour if we are to survive. We depend on our domestic market and our tourism sector – anything that impacts on that is not an option.”

His warning was echoed on Wednesday by the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union Ivor Ferguson who said if the UK left the EU without a deal it would be “be catastrophic for Northern Ireland’s farming families and their businesses”.

“No deal means high tariffs on our exports creating an effective trade embargo and the possibility of lower standard imports flooding the UK market. These practical issues will have an immediate and profound impact on farmers. Causing major disruptions to the supply chain, crippling the industry and rendering our farmers uncompetitive,” Mr Ferguson said.