EU referendum: Meet the Brexit businessman whose life has taken him from a farm in Antrim to Chequers
Irwin Armstrong, whose Ballymena company exports medical test kits, says his own dealings with Europe have helped convince him that Brexit is best for Northern Ireland
Irwin Armstrong loves a good debate and enjoys the limelight. Which is just as well since he’s become the go-to guy for a pro-Brexit opinion.
“I’ve never been so popular!” he joked. “My little factory near Ballymena has been inundated with media types recently. We’ve had RTE, Sky, BBC, ITN and UTV traipsing through here. And I’ve been taking part in debates all over Northern Ireland since last November.”
Back in the Autumn, Irwin was leaning towards Brexit, but was “persuadable” on the question of EU membership.
“That was before Cameron came back from the EU negotiations with his so-called deal which amounted to nothing of value,” said Irwin, a long-time Conservative Party member. “That convinced me that the UK is better out of the EU.”
Irwin (65) is a former chair of the Conservatives in Northern Ireland and stood as a candidate for the Conservative-UUP electoral pact, UCUNF, in the 2010 General Election.
“I knew I’d never get elected, squeezed as I was between Jim Allister and Ian Paisley, but I was pleased to get nearly 5,000 votes. I prefer being a businessman and a back-room guy in politics. I’m a Conservative because I believe in small government, equal opportunities for all, no glass ceilings and a safety net for those who need it. I was very much a Thatcherite. I really admired Margaret Thatcher and I was at her funeral.”
Irwin served on the Conservatives’ national board for two years, gaining entry to the inner circle of political power.
“I’ve sat at the Cabinet table in Downing Street talking to David Cameron and I’ve had a tour of Chequers. That means a lot when you consider that I grew up on a small farm in North Antrim with no electricity or running water.”
Irwin’s father, Ernest, was a digger driver and well-known prize fighter who fought in Belfast. The youngest of three sons, Irwin passed the 11-plus and went to Ballymena Academy, before studying business and accountancy at the former Belfast College of Business Studies. His first job was with Courthaulds in Carrickfergus, later moving to Enkalon in Antrim.
In the mid-Seventies, he joined the Northern Ireland Development Agency where his case work included DeLorean.
“We met management in Dunmurry every Monday morning and we had our concerns,” recalled Irwin. “We felt that the contracts that had been written weren’t tight enough. Money was going out that should not have been going out, but we were over-ruled and our knuckles were rapped for being negative.”
In 1982, he decided he didn’t want to be a civil servant and set up his own consultancy, spending the next two decades helping companies to raise finance and draw up marketing strategies. He worked with major companies including FG Wilson and STC, as well as the Industrial Development Board (IDB), and had an office in Saudi Arabia until the outbreak of the first Gulf War.
His first move into manufacturing was to set up a factory in Bulgaria making razor blades. “I negotiated a contract with the communist government, but had to renegotiate it after the fall of communism there. I was in the capital Sofia the night they took the red flag off the party headquarters.”
In 2005, Irwin set up Ciga Healthcare, importing testing kits for pregnancy, ovulation and menopause from China and supplying them to supermarkets and pharmacy chains.
“It was meant to be a sideline to my consultancy work and it was just me and my wife, Sally, packing the kits. But it expanded rapidly when we won contracts first with Asda, then with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Boots. Later, we moved into testing kits for diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol. However, the recession hit in 2008 and the massive drop in exchange rates meant we needed a rapid reappraisal. The business contracted at that stage and then moved into professional testing kits for the NHS and the HSE in the Republic.
“We also supply a machine that tests for infection and inflammation. Doctors are equipping their surgeries with them to provide accurate information before prescribing antibiotics. We’re doing research and development work with Ulster University to develop new machines for testing.”
Ciga Healthcare has an office in the United States where it has contracts with drugstore giants Walgreen and Rite Aid, as well as Shoppers Drug Mart in Canada. The company now employs 23 people, including Irwin’s sons Niall (a former UUP councillor) and Allan. Ciga achieved sales of £3m last year and Irwin expects this to grow to £5m in 2017, Brexit or no Brexit.
He sells very little in Europe, blaming the “anti-competitive and protectionist” trading rules.
“As far as my business is concerned, there’s no advantage for us being in the EU,” he said. “It’s 28 different markets and they will nearly always find rules and regulations to keep you out. In France, for example, our kits can only be sold in pharmacies and not on supermarket shelves. There are 20,000 pharmacies and no chains, unlike the UK where there are 10,000 pharmacies and most are part of chains. It’s too complicated and expensive to do business in France, similarly Spain and Germany.”
Irwin’s frustration with Europe goes way beyond his personal experience of the market.
“In 1975 I voted to join the EEC because I thought it was a trading deal. It’s now a juggernaut driving towards a united Europe with a single army and a single currency. I was against Maastricht and against the euro. All the elites wanted us to join, but thankfully we didn’t.
“The Remain camp can’t tell us what the EU will look like in ten years or how much it will cost to be a member. I think other countries will leave the EU. When you look at trade, the EU represents just 15% of world trade, while the rest of the world accounts for the other 85%. The Commonwealth nations are entirely open to doing business with the UK. We have excellent trade links with them and similar legal systems. The UK will do very well outside the EU.”
Irwin employs several foreign nationals in his Ballymena factory, mostly from Poland, and is full of praise for their professionalism and work ethic. He agrees that many companies rely heavily upon migrant labour and says employers will not lose out if there’s a Brexit.
“The migrant workers who are here will remain here, but there needs to be a discussion about an Australian-style points system. We don’t need to stop immigration, in fact we should be bringing in more highly skilled people from the Commonwealth. I think it’s quite reasonable that companies should be able to bring skilled people in to fill specific jobs, but we can’t continue to have huge numbers of people pouring into the UK. It’s not sustainable.”
Whether the vote goes his way or not, Irwin has already set his sights on another campaign.
“My next target is helping to drive forward the case for integrated education,” he said. “It goes back to my upbringing. I’m an atheist and my parents were liberal. I played hurling with friends when I was a child and our home was a place where everyone met for conversation.
“I feel strongly that if we bring kids together at an early stage, a lot of our negative attitudes towards each other will disappear and Northern Ireland will become a better and more prosperous society, where everyone has a chance to do well.”
Irwin Armstrong is one of the few vocal pro-Brexit business leaders in Northern Ireland. But what have other bosses had to say on the subject of the EU Referendum?
Michael Ryan, vice-president and general manager of aerospace giant Bombardier: “It is better for our company that the UK remains within the EU. Access to integrated European supply chains is critical to our business, and the free movement of goods across Europe contributes significantly to our competitiveness.”
William Wright, founder and chairman of busmaker Wrightbus: “I am totally in favour of getting out. It is time to take back control of our own affairs. The bureaucracy of Europe is not conducive to the UK’s business interests. I am firmly in the ‘leave’ camp.”
Janet McCollum, chief executive of poultry giant Moy Park: “We are a European business and Europe is our market — and we are strongly in favour of the UK remaining within the EU. Remaining gives firms greater certainty about the future.”
Bill Wolsey, managing director of hospitality giant Beannchor, owners of the Merchant Hotel: “We will have difficulty getting people to come here. Even though we have a far higher percentage of local people working for us, there still will be a massive shortfall.”
Terry Cross, founder of Delta Print and Packaging: “It’s a ‘common market’ and there should be a common currency and no barriers to trade across all the EU states, including Britain. We need to scale up and work together to compete with China, Russia and the US. There’s nobody coming forward with an overwhelming case that we’d be much better outside the EU.”
Liam Nagle, chief executive of Norbrook Holdings: “We have to look at the facts — that 80% of our sales come from outside the UK and Ireland. And £50m of our sales come from EU members, and we are very dependent on free movement over the border. Hundreds of our workers commute over the border every day for work. And we buy about £30m in raw materials from EU countries.”
James Bardrick, UK chief of Citigroup: “We believe the UK’s position as a global leader in many areas of financial services is in no small part aided by efficient and effective access to the EU’s single market — the largest single market in the world.”