Businesses in North run shy of political feuding over Brexit

Politicians urged to find a ‘middle way’ to avoid damage to Northern Ireland economy

“On Brexit the politics overtook the economics quite some time ago now.”

“On Brexit the politics overtook the economics quite some time ago now.”

 

A leading unionist businessman has urged politicians in the North to find a “middle way” to ensure that Brexit does not damage the Northern Ireland economy.

Trevor Lockhart, the head of the Fane Valley agribusiness company, has complained that Northern politicians appear to be too divided over possible constitutional matters to pay proper attention to the worries of Northern Ireland businesspeople.

Mr Lockhart made his comments ahead of representatives from 12 manufacturing companies travelling to Brussels on Monday to tell the EU about their anxieties over Brexit.

The businessman was also voicing his concerns following the talk last week of “blood red lines” and also threats to the constitutional integrity of Britain and Northern Ireland from Arlene Foster and rejoinder from Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill that the DUP leader had “lost the run of herself”.

“Business people feel it would be wiser not to put their head about the parapet at the moment,” said one business leader.

There was no such reticence however from Mr Lockhart, whose Fane Valley company employs 2,500 people, with about 1,200 of them working in the Republic and 1,200 in Northern Ireland.

“On Brexit the politics overtook the economics quite some time ago now. I think that is much to the disappointment and frustration of business,” said Mr Lockhart, who is also chairman of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland.

How freely goods are transported and even more importantly, how he brings in outside labour to work in Fane Valley factories are of critical importance to him and his enterprise.

EU nationals

About half of his workforce is from EU countries such as Poland, Portugal and Lithuania but because of the uncertainty caused by Brexit many of these EU nationals are upping sticks and returning home.

Since 2017 he has been losing 4 per cent of staff per month, apart from a couple of periods when it seemed the whole Brexit conundrum might be resolved. “If you have 1,000 people in a factory, and you are losing 40 of them every month, and you have to replace and train those 40 every month then that causes problems,” he explained.

He believes his difficulties are being exacerbated by the “rhetoric being spoken on both sides of the argument” about Brexit. So he understands the reluctance of some businesspeople to enter the Brexit debate.

“For business the sentiment has been that the political parties (in Northern Ireland) are divided on Brexit in the same way they are divided on many things,” he said.

Business has not been given the priority that it warrants and deserves, he added.

And neither is he convinced that the British government is properly attuned to the requirements of Northern Ireland.

“We are not persuaded that London is listening. There is significant frustration in business that the needs of Northern Ireland do not appear to be fully understood by those people at the heart of decision making.”

Mr Lockhart, who is a unionist, said as far as he and the CBI were concerned some deal was better than no deal.

‘Single market’

“The ideal outcome from a Northern Ireland perspective was that the UK as whole would remain in the customs union with Europe, and that we would have a strong partnership with Europe from the perspective of the single market,” he said.

Failing that they could live with some form of backstop arrangement – if the British and Irish governments, the EU and the DUP could agree to one that was workable.

He was conscious that regardless of obdurate DUP positions, that behind the scenes work continues to try to solve the problem of Brexit, Northern Ireland, the Republic and the EU – and that there appears to be the smell of a compromise if Arlene Foster, her deputy Nigel Dodds and the rest of the DUP can live with it.

The sounds so far from the DUP have been negative. Mr Lockhart wasn’t going to be explicitly critical of any politician, but believed if they moved beyond the rhetoric and the noise, that a pragmatic arrangement could be agreed that did not “interfere with constitutional” issues and that would allow some form of free trade to continue.

“There has to be a middle way found,” said Mr Lockhart.