Fate of businesses in Newry could now depend on EU vote
The vote on whether to leave the EU will affect "every worker and every employer for the rest of their lives". That's the assessment by Newry Chamber of Commerce of the dilemma facing the city as the EU referendum beckons in June.
The views of the city's businesses appear unanimous, with 100% of Chamber members voting to publicly support staying in the EU at an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) last night.
Major Newry employers, such as pharmaceutical firm Norbrook Laboratories and financial software firm First Derivatives, all benefit from the free movement of workers from the EU who can travel to work in Newry from the Republic and other EU member states.
And in periods where sterling is weak, traders have also benefited from an influx of southern shoppers - and around 2009, the city's main shopping centres, The Quays and Buttercrane, were packed with southern-registered cars.
Famously, the off-licence at Sainsbury's, the anchor tenant at The Quays, became the busiest in the UK thanks to the patronage of customers from the Republic.
But Dr Conor Patterson, the head of Newry and Mourne Co-operative and Enterprise Agency, said there was more at stake than just money. Newry's very identity could be affected by the reinstatement of a physical border between a Northern Ireland outside the EU, and a Republic of Ireland in.
The removal of customs barriers outside Newry in 1992 had ushered in a period of prosperity for the town, which continues to this day, he said.
"We gained an advantage as the east coast midway between Belfast and Dublin," he said.
That meant Newry could reverse a pattern of economic deprivation which had dogged it for "most of the 20th century."
In the worst of the Troubles, he said Newry had been regarded as "a frontier town". The surrounding area of South Armagh was dubbed "bandit country" and overall, it and Newry were an economic no-go area.
But Newry - which gained city status in 2002 - has put the past behind it. The growth of go-getting indigenous companies like First Derivatives and other economic developments mean "there's not the stigmatisation of Newry that there used to be". He is also concerned about the potential travel restrictions between north and south - though Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said the UK and Ireland is likely to maintain free movement under a 'common travel area' arrangement.
But Mr Patterson isn't convinced, and memory lingers of the impact of customs barriers on the approaches to Newry.
"All of that is now an open dual carriageway, but what would replace that if there is a Brexit?"
Feargal McCormack, managing director of Newry accountancy firm PKF FPM, said a Brexit would not benefit Newry. "The EU has been good for our business and our clients' businesses. I think we should definitely stay in and I haven't come across any businessperson in the Newry area who thinks we should go.
"Yes, some of the EU red tape is annoying but that's no reason to go. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages."
Another Newry businessman - this time wishing to remain anonymous - said he had concerns about the prospect of the Irish border being re-established should the UK leave the EU. He said: "The extra time waiting for a border check would hold up deliveries and put off shoppers. A lot of people cross over to go shopping and reintroducing the border would have an impact on that.
"The Executive has been investing in jobs with EU funding that will not come back to Northern Ireland.
"Someone needs to tell me what exactly this means in pounds and pence. We pay so much to the EU and you get so much back, but no one has told me how it will affect businesses."
Newry Chamber of Commerce told its members last night: "Jobs, income levels and the buying power of our pound coins are all threatened by uncertainty.
"Therefore we welcome the fixing of a date for the referendum on the future of the UK's relationship with the EU.
"The outcome of the vote will affect every worker and every employer for the rest of their existence."
The stakes are very high for Newry.