Rathlin kelp business owner looks south as Brexit fears mount

‘My market is Europe and I don’t see why I should look beyond that,’ says Kate Burns

Kate Burns on hard Brexit: “There is so much misinformation and naivety about it.” Photograph: Kate Burns/PA Wire

Kate Burns on hard Brexit: “There is so much misinformation and naivety about it.” Photograph: Kate Burns/PA Wire


Kate Burns is a straight-talking, innovative businesswoman who runs a kelp-growing and processing industry on Rathlin island, off the coast of Co Antrim. She employs seven people at Islander Kelp, significant numbers in such a small community.

On Brexit her emotions swing between anxiety and deep frustration over concerns World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs could undermine her business, and exasperation that the UK got itself into this political morass in the first place.

She exports a considerable portion of kelp south of the Border and also to Holland and Switzerland, along with smaller amounts to Germany and Britain. She fears that if WTO tariffs apply, she will face additional charges of 22 per cent, which would be severely damaging to her business. She is now considering moving part of her enterprise to avoid such taxes.

Her company farms kelp on ropes in the sea off Rathlin, an operation that runs 365 days a year. As well as the exports, the raw kelp is also used to make noodles on the island. The kelp is also sent to Cookstown in Co Tyrone, where with other ingredients it is transformed into products such as tapenade, relishes, salsa verde and pesto. Much of the product is bound for high-end restaurants in continental Europe.

“We are the only people in Britain and Ireland who farm kelp for food, and the only people in Europe who produce added-value products from farmed kelp,” she says.

Brexit ‘disaster’

Burns, a native of Co Down, has had a base on Rathlin since 1978. She worked away from the island between 1995 and 2013, including a period in the fishing industry in Maine, where she first learned about kelp farming.

In October she rang in to BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback, where she got into a barney with leading Brexiteer Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP for East Antrim.


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On the programme Burns, who says her background crosses the two main traditions in Northern Ireland, protested that Brexit was both threatening her business and also Northern Ireland’s union with Britain.

In the course of the conversation, Wilson said: “People in Northern Ireland died to remain part the United Kingdom and not be forced out by terrorists.”

To which she snapped back: “If you want to drive forward a united Ireland, boy, you’re doing a great job of it.”

She believes Brexit is an economic “disaster” and holds to her conviction that it is politically and socially disruptive.

“I think before Brexit, Northern Ireland had got to a place where many of the Catholic community, the nationalist community, were pretty happy with the status quo. And that has completely changed,” she says. “Not only that, but there are a lot of unionists out there scratching their heads wondering why on earth the DUP did what they did and not being one bit happy with it. Brexit has created a social and political and economic turmoil which will take a long time to recover from.”

Stable and happy

Regardless of people’s point of view , Ireland needs the British economy to do well, she says. “We need it to be a stable and happy place and have good relationships with it.”

She fears the British economy will suffer following Brexit and that a drop in consumer spending would have a knock-on impact on the Irish economy.

Burns is also unimpressed with calls from some Leavers for her and other business people to face a brave new world and seek fresh markets outside the EU.

“There are 500 million people in Europe. On a point of principle – and nobody mentions this in the Brexit debate – why would I add to world food miles to export to New Zealand or Argentina or the US or anywhere else?

“My market is Europe and I don’t see any reason why I should look beyond that. But WTO tariffs will make that market as expensive for me to access as the market in China,” she adds.

Brexit may compel her to move some of her production to the Republic. “I am certainly exploring setting up a business in the South. I am talking with a lot of potential growers,” she says.

Burns says she has become involved in the Brexit debate only reluctantly. “I really did not want to speak to the press, but I feel so strongly about Brexit that actually we do all need to speak out. There is so much misinformation and naivety about it – that this is going to be fine. It is not going to be fine.”

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