May to meet Northern Irish business groups over draft Brexit deal

Meeting set to increase tension between DUP and Northern Ireland business community

British prime minister Theresa May will host Northern Irish businesspeople at 10 Downing Street today. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

British prime minister Theresa May will host Northern Irish businesspeople at 10 Downing Street today. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

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UK prime minister Theresa May will host Northern Irish businesspeople at 10 Downing Street on Thursday as part of her charm offensive to win support for the draft Brexit deal.

The event is being pitched as an opportunity for companies and industry groups to hear directly from Mrs May about how the draft agreement would work and to raise concerns about aspects of the deal.

Among the groups attending the late-afternoon reception will be the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Business, the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Institute of Directors, the Freight Transport Association, Northern Ireland Retail Consortium and Manufacturing NI.

The meeting will likely add tensions between Northern Ireland business community, which has largely come out in support of Mrs May’s divorce deal with the European Union, and the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish party propping up Mrs May’s minority government that is opposed to the agreement.

The DUP and Northern Irish business groups have clashed over the Brexit agreement, with the political party claiming that business representative groups were “dancing to the government’s tune”.

‘Love-in’

DUP MP Jim Shannon accused Northern secretary Karen Bradley at a House of Commons committee on Wednesday of engaging in a “love-in” with businesses in Northern Ireland over the deal when he said there was a large body of opinion in the Northern Irish business and farming community opposed to the agreement.

Aodhán Connolly, director of Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, rejected this view, saying business groups would use Thursday’s meeting to raise questions about the withdrawal agreement. The questions would include how checks might work between Northern Ireland and Britain under the fallback “backstop” arrangement to avoid a hard Irish border, and what paperwork might be required and the costs involved under such arrangement.

“We are very much seeing this as a chance to work on those things which we don’t see as perfect in the agreement; different sectors have different concerns,” he said.

He described opponents to the agreement as being “very few and far between” within the business community in Northern Ireland.

“One of the good things that has come out of this is the collegiate nature of the response. Never before in my lifetime have I have seen this happen, the retail industry standing beside the farming and manufacturing industry in support of the agreement,” he said.

Trade deal

Seamus Leheny, policy manager of the Freight Transport Association in Northern Ireland, said that economically the agreement was the best outcome but people were jumping to the conclusion that the “backstop” to avoid a hard border would be used because no trade deal could be agreed.

“People are jumping the gun. Theresa May hopes there will be a trade deal,” he said.

“Those who are against the withdrawal agreement right across the UK politically, maybe their efforts should be best used to back the agreement and focus on getting a deal that is all encompassing for the UK and that it works so you never need a backstop.”

Among the businesspeople invited to 10 Downing Street is Northern Irish haulier Chris Slowey of Portadown transport company Manfreight, one of whose drivers figured in a feature article last month on the impact of Brexit on cross-border supply routes in The Irish Times.

The article is said to have been included in briefing materials for UK environment secretary Michael Gove. Despite some expectation that he might quit the cabinet over the deal, Mr Gove has said he would remain on in his post and help Mrs May sell the agreement to the UK parliament.

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