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'Be prepared' watchword for Northern Ireland business as Brexit looms

By David Elliott

Businesses in Northern Ireland were urged to "plan for the worst case scenario and hope for the best" at a Brexit event yesterday.

The advice from Johnny Hanna, KPMG partner and head of tax, came at an Ulster Business Brexit Breakfast at the Mac in Belfast.

Mr Hanna said: "We know the UK will leave the customs union and we know the UK will leave the single market.

"Those two things on their own mean Brexit will be a big deal for many companies, so much so that even the prospect has forced many to act."

He said preparation would be key for companies.

For example, a consultancy business reliant on EU tenders could be advised to incorporate into the EU to be prepared for the separation.

Mr Hanna also pointed out that exporters in Northern Ireland are, in fact, looked upon enviously by those in the Republic.

"They think Northern Ireland companies have an advantage because they are part of a UK market of 70 million people.

"Their concern is people buying products in Great Britain will choose to buy from within the UK, rather than go to the Republic."

Tom Kelly, founder of Stakeholder Communications and former chairman of Stronger in Europe, said a second referendum couldn't be ruled out.

"If Theresa May gets a good enough majority then she might decide to put any deal she can negotiate to the people. A second referendum is possible."

But he said that was an outside chance, and in reality Brexit will be a long-drawn-out process.

"It's going to be a complicated process, not helped by an absentee Executive in Northern Ireland."

He said a lot of work has been carried out by the government in the Republic, but interest in Northern Ireland's interests from Westminster appears weak.

"I can't tell you how little some of them know about our situation. In the past there were Tories who had family here or interest in Ireland but there are very few today," he said.

Aidan Gough, InterTradeIreland's policy and strategy director, said planning was crucial.

But he said a recent survey by the agency found that 98% of businesses in Northern Ireland have not taken any action to ready themselves for Brexit.

"There are actions which can be taken now to prepare: innovation, lean techniques and actions which should be aimed at the worst case scenario.

"We're telling business to take action now and also to engage with policy makers to let them know what is happening on the ground, so they can negotiate properly."

Will Taylor, founder of Glastry Farm Ice Cream in Kircubbin, said he had already found subtle barriers appearing for his exports to the Republic.

"We've already started to look at Great Britain and are actively looking at a distribution network there and have even had productive meetings with buyers in the United Arab Emirates," he said.

Belfast Telegraph