Brexit: ‘It is an unknown and nobody likes uncertainty’

Border businesses feel their way in the dark as ‘Brexpo’ get-ready tour reaches Monaghan

 Adrienne McGuinness, director of the Nest Box Egg Company. “It would be nice if we had some more clarity,” she says. Photograph: Julien Behal

Adrienne McGuinness, director of the Nest Box Egg Company. “It would be nice if we had some more clarity,” she says. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

Eggs, engineers, ducks, hotels, mushrooms, oysters and artists. There is nothing that Brexit won’t touch, particularly when you are a short drive from the Border with Northern Ireland.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney, the Government’s Brexit frontman, drew an eclectic crowd to his third “Brexpo” gig of a four-show “Getting Ireland Brexit Ready” tour in Monaghan town.

Nowhere else in the country will be affected so severely as the Border region given the concentration of the agri-food sector in this area and the complex supply chains that straddle the 499-km frontier.

This proximity to the Border makes it difficult for the more than 400 businesspeople who showed up in Monaghan to plan for the future.

Membership of a customs union and single market meant business has not had to recognise an economic border for more than a generation and suddenly these companies must plan to operate across or next to one.

Unwilling to invest

With no deal coming from Brussels any time soon, businesses are feeling their way in the dark and unwilling to invest.

Ducks produced by Monaghan food manufacturer Silver Hill Foods cross the Border at least three or four times in their lifetime: eggs are laid in Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone, and poultry processed in Emyvale, Co Monaghan.

Brexit has meant fewer duck crossings as the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the EU led the company to stop recruiting Northern Ireland farmers who planned to build duck houses to feed the producer’s expansion.

“We are looking to invest €25 million to €30 million in a new plant and we are holding off until we see what happens,” said Barry Cullen, head of sales at Silver Hill.

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Biggest dilemma

To invest or not to invest is the biggest dilemma facing companies, says businessman Peter Quinn, whose brother Seán was once ran a vast cross-Border business empire in these parts.

“Right now, most businesses would be wary of investing until they know what the final outcome is going to be,” Quinn told The Irish Times.

Uncertainty was the recurring theme at the event in the Four Seasons Hotel.

“It is an unknown and nobody likes uncertainty. It would be nice if we had some more clarity,” said Adrienne McGuinness, director of the Nest Box Egg Company that sells most of its eggs into the Republic.

Gerard Caulfield, director of Monaghan-based Greenfield Foods, sells seven million eggs a week to the large supermarket chains in the Republic. He estimates a no-deal Brexit would cost him €700,000 a year.

“I wouldn’t see much difference between us and the business that hasn’t done the costing because you are really guessing,” he said of the merits of planning or not planning.

Sterling fluctuations

Fluctuations in the value of sterling, rather than World Trade Organization tariffs (of up to 28 per cent on eggs) was the biggest worry for most businesses.

Companies north of the Border were suffering not just from a general lack of Brexit planning by the UK government but also from the absence of a Northern Irish executive and assembly at Stormont.

Kevin Magee, who works with builders’ providers P McDermott & Sons in Omagh, Co Tyrone, had to travel to an Irish Government event in Monaghan to learn from other Northern Irish businesspeople who had travelled that there were UK government websites to help businesses with Brexit.

“If I hadn’t have come here, I wouldn’t have learned about it,” he said. “It reflects very badly on the information available in Northern Ireland.”

Coveney and Minister for Business Heather Humphreys listened to Northern firms raise their concerns at a breakfast hosted by InterTradeIreland, the all-island body helping small and medium-sized firms.

“It was very raw and very real,” said one attendee. “People are fearful for their businesses.”

Vouchers

The organisation’s €2,250 vouchers for professional Brexit-planning advice have been a help.

“Regardless of what political party you are aligned to, there is a lack of a voice coming from Northern Ireland about the seriousness of the situation,” said Muriel Kerr, a director of Armagh engineers McMahon Associates, which does a large amount of business with the public sector in the Republic.

Despite the uncertainty, Northern businesses were stoic about what an unclear future holds.

“We were there when there was a hard border. We were there during the Troubles. All along the Border area, they are a very entrepreneurial and resilient people,” said duck salesman Barry Cullen.

“Whatever comes, we will deal with it and we will move on.”