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Brexit: Leave the EU and firms could quit Northern Ireland for the Republic

By John Mulgrew

Published 01/03/2016

Allstate's former managing director Bro McFerran
Allstate's former managing director Bro McFerran

Some of the world’s biggest companies could leave Northern Ireland if the UK votes to leave the EU, experts here have warned.

There are serious concerns that major international companies — who have been attracted here by millions in EU funding — could be poached by the Republic in the event the UK votes to leave on June 23.

That could mean hundreds of jobs being lost across the border in the event of a Brexit.

Bro McFerran, former managing director of insurance giant Allstate, said there was “very definitely” a risk of firms withdrawing.

"They see it (Northern Ireland) as a gateway to Europe, we are on Europe's doorstep. I think if someone is taking a decision, some may think it's better to go elsewhere."

And he dismissed the anti-EU campaign as "nonsense".

"I'm very much pro-EU for a lot of reasons. Not only do we have the EU investment, but university research will go by-the-by without the EU," he said.

"I think when you take the whole thing, Northern Ireland is far better off in Europe."

He said technology firms had benefited from financial assistance, and Northern Ireland's agri-business and food sector was also better off staying in the EU.

Mr McFerran said firms such as Allstate and manufacturing giant Caterpillar had been attracted to Northern Ireland because of its EU membership.

"It (Caterpillar) wouldn't be investing in Larne if they weren't in the single market," he said.

"A lot of people haven't thought this through. The argument we are going to be better off out, doesn't wash," he added.

No-one from Caterpillar was available for comment on its take on EU membership.

John-George Willis, head of the corporate department at law firm Tughans, agreed there was a risk of investment going elsewhere.

"Those inward investment agencies and others in Europe in particular will be interested in luring a number of businesses across the border," he said.

"I've no doubt that a number of the foreign direct investments (FDI) into Northern Ireland are going to be vulnerable from the IDA. And on the basis they wouldn't have to move too far to remain in the EU."

And Aine Brolly, NI chief executive of recruitment firm Cpl, said there was "palpable concern over North-South business relations". As a firm with headquarters in Dublin and offices in Northern Ireland, she said Cpl was "definitely" concerned.

"Indigenous companies here have bought into wanting to be here and have commitment," she said.

"With FDI companies, there's not the same commitment. When it suits them they will stay (in Northern Ireland), when it doesn't, they could leave."

Invest NI told the Belfast Telegraph: "investment decisions by foreign direct investors in discussions with Invest NI have not been delayed by the EU question".

And a spokeswoman said: "There has been no impact on Invest NI's pipeline of investment discussions in the last few months." It said it's also "not in a position to comment on Brexit at this point".

Between 2007 and 2013, Northern Ireland received almost €700m (£550m) in various funding streams, including through Interreg Iva and the Northern Ireland European Social Fund Programme.

That doesn't include more than €2bn (£1.6bn) in farm payments.

And several Invest NI schemes are part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

That includes assistance for small firms, along with research and development cash.

But yesterday, during a trip to Northern Ireland, Mayor of London Boris Johnson dismissed fears Northern Ireland would be hit hardest if there was to be a Brexit.

Belfast Telegraph

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