Investment and business goodwill ‘atrophying’ over Brexit, says Belfast lawyer

Business in North is sluggish, while jobs are being lost due to lack of clarity and coherence

David Davis:  The sparring between Mr Davis and Michel Barnier reminds Belfast-based lawyer Brett Lockhart  of two bar-library QCs engaging in negotiation well in advance of a complicated trial. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

David Davis: The sparring between Mr Davis and Michel Barnier reminds Belfast-based lawyer Brett Lockhart of two bar-library QCs engaging in negotiation well in advance of a complicated trial. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

 

Belfast-based corporate lawyer Brett Lockhart says the recent sparring between David Davis and Michel Barnier reminds him of two bar-library QCs engaging in negotiation well in advance of a complicated trial.

“It’s two years before trial and nobody really has an interest in the final decision because at that stage it is just skirmishing,” says Lockhart, a leading figure in Northern Ireland’s legal world.

“But in the meantime in Northern Ireland the infrastructure is stagnant, there is an atrophying of goodwill and investment and people and the economy suffer,” he laments.

Business, such as nature and politics, abhors a vacuum and right now because of the uncertainty caused by Brexit, Lockhart sees Northern Ireland caught in an empty space.

Business is sluggish, while jobs are being lost because of the lack of clarity and coherence over what the UK quitting the European Union will mean for Northern Ireland, he argues.

“There is a massive frustration particularly within the business and professional community,” he says, “The Conservative government is in disarray and one gets the impression they really don’t seem to know what they are doing.”

This week, Lockhart worked with NI contractors. Ninety-five per cent of their work is now no longer at home: “They said there are so few construction projects starting because we are in this period of inertia.

‘Afraid’

“Nobody is prepared to do anything. People are afraid to take the initiative, they are frightened to invest. We are into this vacuum period and we always do badly out of that,” he went on.

The British government’s paper asserting its commitment to avoid a hard border and Michel Barnier’s response on Thursday hasn’t pushed matters much forward, he fears.

Barnier’s call on London to come up with a unique solution for NI is welcome, and he understands calls by nationalists for NI to have special status within the EU.

He understands, too, that this alarms unionism, but Lockhart believes that unionists should be open to “exceptional” arrangements being created for the North.

Such arguments hold little water with many. Detecting a constitutional threat in Barnier’s proposals, such as they were, Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said NI’s constitutional post “cannot and will not be diluted or changed”.

Similarly, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said: “By trying to set this part of the UK as a place apart within its nation of choice the EU is disrespecting our constitutional affinity.”

However, Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader Nigel Dodds was less worried, believing that there is not a threat in Barnier’s paper because it did not “bring forward a single proposal”.

Opportunity

Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd however did see a constitutional opportunity, welcoming “the news that the principle of a unique status for the North has been accepted by the EU”.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was positive that the EU “now acknowledges that the island of Ireland needs a special deal which will protect this island’s position and our people.

“[The] publication also brings more focus to the insanity of having no local institutions in Northern Ireland while the ongoing Brexit process threatens all of our futures.”

However, Lockhart, a “convinced Remainer”, believes there was a useful offer of a “certain kind of exceptionalism” for Northern Ireland in Barnier’s paper.

“The penny has to drop that we are a different region and that there are unique aspects of our constitutional arrangements,” he says, adding that rejecting proposals out of hand for narrow political reasons “is really disturbing”.

“There is a Pollyanna-type approach that all will be well, that the EU has to do a deal, and we will take back control of our own destiny no matter what is the cost.”