A British exit from the European Union would create uncertainty and potential risks for small businesses in Northern Ireland, a House of Commons committee has heard. Representatives from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the organisation adopted a neutral stance on the referendum.
But their research suggested that small business owners in the North were more enthusiastic about remaining in the EU than those elsewhere in the UK, favouring the Remain side by a margin of almost two to one. Roger Pollen, the FSB's head of external affairs, said that small business owners, who employ more people in the North than big companies and the public sector combined, could not predict the impact of an exit from the EU.
“Looking to Remain, you’re dealing with a largely known quantity. Looking to Leave, there’s uncertainty. And at this stage it’s not clear yet who can give definitive answers to those questions,” he said.
This came as a study from one of the North’s biggest business bodies found that the “benefits and value” of EU membership could be worth an estimated £1,225 to every person in Northern Ireland each year.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Northern Ireland used UK HM Treasury figures to establish a guidel to what it costs per person to be part of the EU and to calculate what financial “benefits” people in the North derived from EU membership.
Nigel Smyth, CBI Northern Ireland director, said the organisation estimated that the net costs of EU membership works out at around £83 per person per annum (after rebates and receipts) - far in excess of the benefits.
Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, who is campaigning to leave the EU, this week dismissed as "scare stories" fears that border controls could be restored if the UK votes to leave. Although some FSB members said they believed that a mutually beneficial arrangement could be agreed with Dublin after a British exit, the group's representatives acknowledged that there were different views even at the highest political level.
FSB Northern Ireland policy chairman Wilfred Mitchell told the committee yesterday that the greatest uncertainty surrounded the agriculture sector in the North, which receives between £200 million (€253m) and £250 million a year from the EU.
“Is that going to be replaced? Agriculture in Northern Ireland couldn’t sustain not replacing that. We don’t know the answer to that,” he said.
Asked about the difficulty Northern Ireland’s business community faced in influencing decisions made in Brussels, Mr Mitchell remarked on the North’s limited influence on the forthcoming referendum.
“We’re largely bystanders, watching. We can jump up and down all we want but the decision isn’t going to be made in Northern Ireland,” he said.