‘We are looking for the softest Brexit possible’
Brexit Proof: In the first of a new series on how business is managing the challenge of Brexit, we talk to Foyle Port CEO Brian McGrath whose business straddles the Border
Brian McGrath, Foyle Port CEO: ‘We are Brexit ready’
Brian McGrath is chief executive of Foyle Port which directly and indirectly employs more than 1,000 people, and supports the cross-Border, northwest regional economy with a focus on the agri and energy sectors.
What was your reaction when you heard the UK had voted to leave the EU?
I wasn’t overly surprised because it was a question framed by the immigration question in England. It wasn’t something that had any real consideration around the Irish Border or the economy in which we operate.
How is your business likely to be affected?
Degrees on a sliding scale from marginal impact to quite serious impact depending on the type of Brexit we get. After the decision to leave, the Harbour Commission adopted a corporate policy advocating staying in the single market and the customs union. We are looking for the softest Brexit possible because we operate in a cross-Border context.
How much do you rely on exports or the supply of materials across the Border?
We are predominantly importing materials here. About 40 per cent of our trade levels come into Northern Ireland which are then exported to the Republic by road. The Brexit outcome will determine whether there is additional bureaucracy around those transactions. The extent to which it will impact our competitive position will determine if future business is at risk. If there was bureaucracy around every single lorry movement, it may be that it becomes uncompetitive and people would look to do their trade elsewhere.
When did you begin preparing for Brexit and what contingency plans have you put in place so far?
Our Brexit preparations started before the referendum result came out. From the minute the referendum was called, we have been watching and refining our response to it as it has gone along.
There are certain areas where you can make provision and other things you need to address as you are confronted by them. One thing we have uniquely in Britain and Ireland is the capacity to build any additional assets such as warehouses and holding areas that may be required for Brexit but it is not something we would want to have to exploit. Resources could be used better elsewhere but if we have to, we can.
Does Brexit present any opportunities for your business?
Paradoxically it does because our jurisdiction straddles the Border and we operate in Donegal and in Northern Ireland. Uniquely, it means we can be both a UK and EU port at the same time. We are the only place that can claim to do that. We see that as potentially a big advantage to us if it can be exploited as a European and UK gateway simultaneously.
When do you expect to be Brexit-ready?
We are Brexit ready.
What’s your best/worst case scenario?
A deal is the best. The deal rejected this week at Westminster addressed uncertainty that causes so much concern to our customers. Worst case is a hard Brexit which would cause more uncertainty and immediate problems. A managed exit is what we need.
How might the Irish or British governments, or the EU, help ease the pain of Brexit for your company or sector?
That is tied up in whether it is a soft or hard Brexit. We feel we have a foot in each camp in terms of what we do and where we operate. We are convinced of the need for good Anglo-Irish relations going forward. Eventually the dust will settle and there will be sensible and strong relations re-established with our Irish stakeholders.
How do you think the British government has handled the Brexit negotiations?
It’s not how a commercial organisation would have gone about it.
Looking out five years, how do you think your business or industry will have changed as a result of Brexit?
We are eternally optimistic, given our location and the market we serve. This has been an unnecessary diversion from what we do. We want security and clarity, and getting on with promoting prosperity for stakeholders in the region in a way that needs a joined-up approach is what we are committed to do.
Would you like to see a second referendum on Brexit?
That is a political judgement. It is hard to see, from a democratic position, how that plays out. There has been enough confusion caused by the process to date. An orderly withdrawal is probably the best we hope for.
Wearing my president of Londonderry Chamber of Commerce hat, I think it is fair to say there is a fairly unanimous view of the members of the need for a soft Brexit. Most wouldn’t object to another referendum but ultimately it is still a question of what happens in England not in the regions. They are not able to influence the outcome on a numeric basis.
We need to have a seamless Border that allows us to do what we do every day on a really integrated basis.