‘I remember the hard Border – I don’t want to go back to that’
‘NI politicians have been less than helpful,’ says Derry businessman George Fleming
George Fleming: “Our Northern Ireland politicians should back Theresa May”
George Fleming of Fleming Agri Products says the bread and butter of his business is in Britain and Ireland. Based in Newbuildings, Co Derry, Fleming Agri Products manufactures agricultural machinery, including slurry tankers, trailers and meal-handling equipment.
Fleming, now chairman, established the business in 1983. Half of its business comes from Britain and about 30 per cent from the Republic, as well as selling at home in Northern Ireland.
What was your reaction when you heard the UK had voted to leave the EU?
Extremely disappointed. I’m concerned for the people who work for me. People in Birmingham were voting to leave for a different reason than what people in Northern Ireland were voting for.
How much do you rely on exports or the supply of materials across the Border?
We export 85 per cent of what we produce outside Northern Ireland. From a supply chain point of view, we bring in components from all over the world. If that supply chain was interrupted with queues at ports, that would affect us.
Are you stockpiling goods or raw materials?
All the machinery we manufacture revolves around what goes into and what comes out of an animal. We’re making products in January that will be used by a farmer in April, May, June. We do buy in advance, usually three to six months.
When do you expect to be Brexit-ready?
I’ll deal with the problem when it presents itself. We don’t know what we’re preparing for. I own property in Donegal. I can create a manufacturing process in the Republic, which will cover me for European sales. I have that security and I know a number of businesses have been looking into the possibility of having a foot in both camps.
Are you examining new markets or suppliers, and if so, how practical is that?
I’m sure my suppliers don’t want to lose my business. It takes a long time to set up trading relationships, something politicians don’t always understand. We should focus on building trading relationships with people on our doorstep instead of saying we can just go to the other side of the world.
Looking five years out, how do you think your business or industry will have changed as a result of Brexit?
At this time, I can load my lorry and send it to Britain or the Republic without getting stopped. All our exports and sales are recorded by the government already. I don’t believe we’ll have a hard border because I don’t think the politicians could be that stupid.
Does Brexit present any opportunities for your business?
If there is a hard Brexit and it is difficult for me to export my product to Europe, it will also be the case that it will be hard for Europe to export to Britain and Northern Ireland, opening up opportunities in the domestic markets.
What’s your best-case and worst-case scenario?
I remember taking two hours driving the lorry through customs and the bureaucracy that was involved. I do not want to go back to that, so obviously a soft border would be a best-case scenario. Once you have a hard border and a customs post, you have a demarcation between the North and the Republic and there will be elements of our community who won’t want to see that.
How might the Irish or British governments, or the EU help, ease the pain of Brexit for your company or sector?
We’ve 115 staff here in Newbuildings, a quarter of whom come from Donegal. The EU says they won’t put up a customs post, as do the Republic and the UK government. It’s written into the Good Friday Agreement that we have free movement of people and goods between the Republic and Northern Ireland so where’s this hard border going to come from?
How do you think the government has handled the Brexit negotiations?
Northern Ireland politicians have been less than helpful. Half of them won’t take their seats. They could go to the UK government and vote for the deal. Theresa May was handed a poisoned chalice. She was never going to be able to please everyone. She deserves a lot more support than she’s getting from her own party and from Labour.
Would you like to see a second referendum on Brexit?
You can’t keep voting until you get the answer you want. Groups like the Ulster Farmers’ Union and Manufacturing NI are all in favour of the withdrawal deal. It keeps the trading relationship and allows an open border. Our Northern Ireland politicians should back Theresa May.