Tina McKenzie is chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Northern Ireland and chief executive officer of Grafton Recruitment, which employs 250 people across 10 offices on the island of Ireland.
Q. What was your reaction when you heard the UK had voted to leave the EU?
A. Whether you wanted Brexit or not, it was a night that will be remembered, because it signalled that change was coming. The status quo which we had become used to from when the UK and Ireland first joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973 was about to be altered.
Q. How is your business likely to be affected?
A. What happens with EU citizens living here will have an impact. It is important the value of their contribution is recognised and certainty provided for those people regardless of what else happens in Brexit discussions. Whatever future migration policy the UK decides to adopt will have a big impact on the profile of workers which come here after Brexit. I don't think that the draft Future Migration Policy which the government has put out for consultation is necessarily reflective of the needs of the Northern Ireland economy.
Q. How much do you rely on exports or the supply of materials across the Border?
A. Our products are the people and talent which we manage, however, our customers are manufacturing goods, so if we have a hard border for goods, that will affect business growth plans, and they may not need as many staff as may have been the case. From the perspective of our business it is crucial that both goods and people can flow freely across the Border after Brexit.
Q. When did you begin preparing for Brexit and what contingency plans have you put in place so far?
A. June 24th, 2016, we started to scope out what it might mean to ourselves and our customers, but the three years since then have seen a huge amount of knowledge emerging as to the complexity of supply chains and the wholly integrated nature of doing business within these islands.
Q. Are you examining new markets/suppliers and, if so, how practical is that?
A. We are investing more in the Republic, with four new offices planned over the next year.
Q. Does Brexit present any opportunities for your business?
A. Clearly a no-deal outcome would be entirely negative for businesses in Northern Ireland and it’s very hard to see many opportunities in that, with increased tariffs and trade suddenly becoming burdensome, when it was previously frictionless.
Q. What’s your best/worst case scenario?
A. Best case is Brexit is managed properly and we leave in an orderly way, with a deal. Worst case is a badly handled Brexit, with a no-deal outcome where we have to patch together a raft of ad-hoc arrangements to continue to trade and live the lives we lead.
Q. How might the Irish or British governments, or the EU help ease the pain of Brexit for your company or sector?
A. Providing certainty by agreeing a deal and restoring the Assembly and Executive would go some way to help matters. I think all stakeholders in the Northern Ireland peace process – including the two governments, the EU and perhaps even the United States – should come together the produce a comprehensive plan with the necessary investment to revitalise the Northern Ireland economy, so we can finally see an economic peace dividend, which creates a more prosperous society, as well as a more peaceful one. This would help us navigate Brexit and perhaps even make a success of it.
FSB NI’s proposals for making Northern Ireland an Enhanced Economic Zone, as part of the agreed Future Relationship, could be transformative for this place, but require the two governments and the EU to agree the principles.
Q. How do you think the Irish/British (or both) governments has handled the Brexit negotiations?
A. Both sides are looking out for their own national interests, but what must be remembered is that under the Good Friday agreement both have a role in Northern Ireland and that should be at the forefront of the minds of both governments as we reach this crucial stage in Brexit. There may be a point where both have to give a little ground in order to avoid a no-deal.
Q. Looking out five years, how do you think your business or industry will have changed as a result of Brexit?
A. As an all-Ireland business, the industry may be slightly more complex. However, this may prove an advantage as we can provide expertise to firms looking to recruit whether they are in Derry or Donegal, or Newry or Dundalk, or wherever the business is in Ireland, north or south.
Q. Would you like to see a second referendum on Brexit?
A. Perhaps further down the line when we are out of the EU, and if we think “hold on a minute what we had before was better for businesses and for our people,” then we shouldn’t shut down the option of having another look, but I don’t think now is the right time.