PM’s Brexit bluster cold comfort for North’s business community
‘Listen to the things he’s not saying ... there will be checks, just removed from the Border’
Gavin Killeen, managing director of Derry-based firm Nuprint Technologies. Photograph: Freya McClements
In his office in Derry, Gavin Killeen has the television on.
Like most business owners on the Border, he has spent the 3½ years since the Brexit referendum glued to the latest news and trying to divine what each fresh headline might mean for his company.
Killeen is the managing director of Nuprint Technologies which employs more than 40 people manufacturing and supplying labels and flexible packaging for the food and drink industry across Ireland. Their customers’ products are displayed on the wall behind him; they include Bushmills whiskey, Donegal Creameries and Lacpatrick Dairies.
As British prime minister Boris Johnson prepares to address the Conservative party conference, Killeen has a pen and paper ready, to take notes. The Border is only a mile away. All Killeen’s raw materials are imported from the EU and 35 per cent of his business is with the Republic of Ireland.
This matters – to his business, to his way of life – but he is not hopeful. “This is probably the realisation of the worst fears we’ve had over all these years about Brexit.”
Johnson begins to speak. “Let’s get Brexit done,” he says. Killeen repeats it, shaking his head. “Let’s get Brexit done? That’s the answer for everything.”
The British prime minister outlines his plans. “We will,” he says, “under no circumstances have checks at or near the Border in Northern Ireland”.
“We will respect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and by a process of renewable democratic consent by the Executive and Assembly of Northern Ireland, we will go further and protect the existing regulatory arrangements for farmers and businesses on both sides of the Border.”
This proposal, says Johnson, would allow the UK “whole and entire to withdraw from the EU”.
“It’s complete nonsense,” is Killeen’s initial reaction. “How can you have all of that on one side, and then have the UK withdraw as a whole on the other?”
Johnson continues. The proposals are a “compromise”, he says, but “if we fail to get an agreement because of what is essentially a technical discussion on the exact nature of future customs checks when that technology is improving the whole time, then let us be in no doubt . . . about the alternative – the alternative is no-deal”.
This is not an outcome the UK wants, he says, but “it is an outcome for which we are ready”.
“I think that [a no-deal Brexit] is the outcome he wants,” is Killeen’s response. “It’s the outcome he’s prepared for. He [Johnson] says all the things he doesn’t want to happen, but he doesn’t say how to avoid them. There are no solutions.
“Listen to the words, ‘there will not be checks on or near the Border’. Listen to the things he’s not saying – that means there will be checks, just removed from the Border. Or will there be random customs checks? What would be the consequences of that?”
The consequences of any such customs checks would be significant for the firm. There would be an increase in paperwork, potential delays, tariff charges to pay, and the collection of VAT at point of entry would create cash-flow problems for small businesses.
“Capital will find the part of least resistance,” explains Killeen. “Businesses will stop trading across the Border. We’ll turn our back on the Border, and we’ll try and grow our business by trading internally within the UK.”
He is concerned by the lack of clarity: “He’s said nothing concrete at all. It’s all bluster and bravado, with no substance. We’re not any clearer. All we know is ‘let’s get Brexit done’ is the strapline.”
According to plans outlined by Boris Johnson in a letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, later on Wednesday, the North would become part of an all-island regulatory zone but would leave the customs union, which would necessitate customs checks.
The Northern Ireland Assembly would be given the power to approve the arrangements and to vote on them every four years. The plans have been supported by the DUP, but rejected by the North’s other four main parties.
Killeen’s belief is that the most likely outcome is a no-deal Brexit.
“You hope it won’t put you out of business, and you may have a few pretty fallow years, but you have to see what way it works. We have to try other things,” he says.
“There will be people that will try and capitalise on this and use it to their advantage to the detriment of society. And I think we do need our politicians and our business leaders to speak up and try and be a calming influence on what lies ahead, because it does look like it will be a very difficult, difficult period.”