‘In some ways I'm angry about Brexit, because I'm not in control of any of it’
Northern Irish companies look to the Republic to help falling consumer confidence
Ian Cullen: “We work with a number of organisations which are facing very significant challenges from a bad Brexit or no-deal outcome.” Photograph: iStock
Ian Cullen has a “Brexit business”. He set up his company, digital marketing agency Grofuse, in Derry in August 2017, a year after the Brexit referendum; 18 months later, uncertainty remains a daily reality for his clients.
“We work with a number of organisations which are facing very significant challenges from a bad Brexit or no-deal outcome,” says Cullen, “including agriculture, agri-food and manufacturing businesses operating on both sides of the Border.
“Now there are very real fears that the UK could crash out of the EU and that’s a business scenario that nobody wants. If our clients aren’t doing well, we’re not doing well,” emphasises Cullen.
“If there was to be a hard Brexit it would affect everybody, from the person who’s homeless out on the street to the person who’s at the top of their business.
“There’ll be a trickle effect, well, more of a flood.”
Jennifer McKeever agrees. As the owner of Derry-based company Airporter, which runs a coach service between the city and the two Belfast airports, she has started to see the “first glimpses” of a loss of consumer confidence over Brexit.
“For the first time, I’ve heard people hesitating over making flight bookings for a European destination,” she says.
“It hasn’t affected our business as yet – our numbers remain as they were last year – but I have a sense that the hesitancy that I think we’ve seen in the business community is now starting to be demonstrated in a drop in investment, and I would worry it’s a matter of time before that creeps into consumer behaviour.”
Both employers and employees in Derry would be “drastically affected” by a no deal, says McKeever. “Businesses are just feeling so frustrated, there’s no sense of leadership.”
Airporter has recently invested £1million into a new coach hub. “We want to be connected to the UK and Europe,” says McKeever. “That’s how we’ve built businesses in the north west. These are not new aspirations, this is what we had until June 2016.
“We are totally unclear about what is happening with days, with hours to go until Brexit, and the whole political system both in the UK and in Northern Ireland just seems to be dissolving in our fingers.”
On the other side of the Border, Brian McDermott is both frustrated and angry.
The chef-proprietor of the Foyle Hotel and Bistro in Moville, Co Donegal, McDermott hears about Brexit “all the time” from his Northern customers.
“They’re coming across the Border now almost to get away from Brexit, yet it’s the first thing they talk about when they arrive.
Consumer confidence has been dented by Brexit, so much so, says McDermott, that he has been forced to refocus his business strategy on the Republic, rather than Northern Ireland.
Consumer confidence has been really badly knocked by Brexit
“The Donegal hospitality industry would have been very reliant on that Northern market, but consumer confidence has been really badly knocked by Brexit.
“In some ways I’m angry about Brexit, because I’m not in control of any of it.
“We live on a small island which has been hugely affected by a decision made by the UK, who don’t seem to have much of a duty of care or indeed any sort of interest about the Border.
“They don’t get the impact that Brexit has caused and will continue to cause.”