‘Cross-Border communities are in a perilous position’

Brexit Proof Q&A: Jennifer McKeever, director, Airporter

 

For the last 22 years, Airporter director Jennifer McKeever and her husband Niall have been running a coach service connecting Derry with Belfast’s airports. They carry around 160,000 passengers per year and employ around 40 people.

What was your reaction when you heard the UK had voted to leave the EU?

Shock. Dismay. In Northern Ireland, in particular in the northwest when we live and work so close to the Border, we could see immediately the problems. I woke in bed. My husband brought me a cup of tea and told me the result. I couldn’t believe it had happened.

How is your business likely to be affected?

Our business is point to point. Our ability to operate the service will not change. However, at this end of the journey in the northwest, I think about our customers a third of which come from the other side of the Border.

At the other end of it, we provide only one service to connect people from Derry/Londonderry to the Belfast airports, so anything that impacts air travel will have a massive impact on our business.

Then we look at our customers who work in Britain and Europe and take work all over the world. We look at our incoming passengers many of whom are visitors. I can see potential for peril for each of those customer segments.

When did you begin preparing for Brexit and what contingency plans have you put in place so far?

We have changed very little. We can change very little because our supply chain is from within Northern Ireland and our licence is point to point. I feel we will be impacted by forces we have very little control over.

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One of the things that has been really disquieting is the impact Brexit has had on community relations in Northern Ireland. For the first time, we have started delivering equality training in our organisation to ensure that there is no disruption to how people work together in our organisation. I think that is something employers should be wary of.

Does Brexit present any opportunities for your business?

Not in the way you would normally think of it. If it impacts the opportunities our customers look for then it will impact our business. We could see a drop in customer numbers. It amazed me it took so much of the UK so long to realise how difficult Brexit was going to be.

When do you expect to be Brexit-ready?

When we have an idea of what Brexit will be and when. I really think Northern Ireland and the cross-Border communities are in a perilous position. We cannot put plans in place until we know the nature of the border. Employers in the northwest have cross-Border workers. They are already impacted by the drop in sterling. Our access to talented staff has been diminished as we become less attractive.

What’s your best/worst case scenario?

The deal on the table is probably the best deal there will be. The best case scenario is that Theresa May gets votes to get the deal through. That will provide a certain amount of certainty and allows people to settle. We want to maintain an open border to allow the freedom of movement. Worst case scenario: we crash out without a deal on March 29th. God knows what that looks like.

How do you think the Irish and British governments have handled the Brexit negotiations?

As a former chamber of commerce president, I know businesses do not take a political or ideological position on this. They are simply looking for practical solutions and leadership.

I think the Irish Government has handled themselves with decency and patience and respect. I think they have been very clear from the beginning about making the softest of borders a priority. I am grateful they took that position and stuck to it.

I think the British government represents a very divided British people and I think it has been very difficult for them to face the reality of what leaving the EU actually entails. They wasted a good year-and-a-half somehow imagining the circle could be squared, that you could exit the single market and customs union and guarantee no hard border in Ireland.

They have provided very little in the way of inspirational leadership. Very sadly Northern Ireland has become, for the British government, a problem to be solved rather than a population of people.

Looking out five years, how do you think your business or industry will have changed as a result of Brexit?

We will survive. Businesses are adaptable by nature. I think Northern Ireland could potentially be a very different place in five years. Depending on what happens over the coming months I don’t know what a no deal scenario would look like for Northern Ireland. I think people are interested in what a new Ireland would look like but obviously many people are very uncomfortable with that. It has been very disruptive to Northern Ireland. It remains to be seen how people will settle themselves.

For NI business: Would you like to see a second referendum on Brexit?

No. I would like to see the deal on the table go through. I am an ardent remainer but I don’t think that is the solution now.

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