Invest NI makes unprecedented call on North’s politicians to act on Brexit

Investment agency wants ‘every possible step’ taken to avoid no-deal consequences

DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds  have both previously had Invest NI within their ministerial portfolios. Photograph: PA Wire

DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds have both previously had Invest NI within their ministerial portfolios. Photograph: PA Wire

 

The board of Invest NI has written to the North’s political parties, including the DUP, asking that “every possible step is taken to avoid the consequences of a no-deal scenario” in the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

The intervention is noteworthy because it is the first time the business development agency, which is equivalent to the IDA in the Republic, has become involved in the Brexit debate .

Invest NI is part of the North’s Department for the Economy, whose last budget was set directly by the UK government.

Both the leader of the DUP Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who refused to back the Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement and the backstop arrangement, were formerly ministers for enterprise in Northern Ireland and would have had Invest NI as part of their portfolio.

Mark Ennis, chairman of Invest Northern Ireland, said that the board of the business development agency is “deeply concerned” that with less than 60 days to the UK’s departure from the EU many small- to medium-sized businesses in the North have not yet begun to plan for a no-deal scenario.

Mr Ennis said Invest NI had a number of initiatives in place to help companies plan ahead in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal.

Mr Ennis said: “The board has written to the leaders of Northern Ireland’s main political parties to encourage them to work collectively to ensure that the particular issues faced by our businesses are well understood, considered, and addressed in the ongoing negotiations and that every possible step is taken to avoid the consequences which a No Deal scenario would have on the Northern Ireland business base.”

Separately, the chief executive of one of the North’s largest banks has also warned that a no deal Brexit is the “biggest risk to the Northern Ireland economy in a generation”.

‘Gravely concerned’

Kevin Kingston, chief executive, Danske Bank UK, said he is “gravely concerned about the challenges ahead should a hard Brexit become a reality”.

Mr Kingston said the bank has spent the last few months helping many of its customers plan for their future against the backdrop of the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Mr Kingston said Danske’s position – it has 42 branches and employs around 1,400 people in Northern Ireland – affords it a “strong insight into how thousands of businesses operate” in the North and he believes that a no-deal Brexit would have a far-reaching impact right across the local economy.

“What we have seen is that larger businesses have been taking decisions to try to safeguard their operations, but the smaller businesses are far less prepared, making them the most vulnerable.

“It is these businesses that are of course the lifeblood of the economy in Northern Ireland,” he added.

Danske Bank UK on Friday reported pretax profits of £88.8 million for 2018. Its total income grew to £235.1 million over the same period.

Mr Kingston’s warning comes as a leading industry organisation has highlighted that only one in seven small firms are prepared for a no-deal Brexit,

Tina McKenzie, the policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland, said many small firms have not prepared for a disorderly Brexit because there are “too many unknowns and potential scenarios to plan for”.

“Unlike larger businesses, most small businesses simply don’t have the capacity and resources to plan for no-deal,” Ms McKenzie added.

Seamus Leheny, policy manager of the Freight Transport Association for Northern Ireland said meanwhile that there is concern among his members in the North about the lack of contingency planning in general by government officials in the North.

Mr Leheny said firms are worried that there appears to be “no path” in the event that the UK crashes out of the EU.

“Businesses don’t know to do or what they should be doing and there is no direction coming from government – we together with other stakeholders were due to meet with the UK border planning group and border delivery group this week at Stormont but it was cancelled at very short notice without any explanation,

“There is a lot of anger and frustration now from some about the lack of a contingency plan for Northern Ireland,” Mr Leheny said.