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Brexit: ‘Devil in the detail’ as Northern Ireland business chiefs give deal a wary welcome


Simon Hamilton

Simon Hamilton

Bill Wolsey

Bill Wolsey


Simon Hamilton

Former DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton gave the Brexit deal a cautious welcome yesterday as ex-party colleagues rejected it on the basis of customs, consent and VAT provisions.

Mr Hamilton is now chief executive of the Belfast Chamber of Trade, one of many business groups to give the agreement a tentatively favourable reception.

Entrepreneur Bill Wolsey, whose Beannchor company owns a string of hotels, pizza restaurants and bars, said the pact was better than a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Wolsey also urged local politicians to turn it to Northern Ireland's advantage.

However, critics branded the deal "clunky" and said it was unlikely to bring the same benefits to Northern Ireland business as the withdrawal agreement negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May.

Mr Hamilton, who joined the Belfast Chamber earlier this year, said members "have been consistently clear in their desire to avoid the UK exiting the EU without a deal".

"Our members have expressed concerns that a no-deal outcome would have a hugely negative impact on our economy," he added.

"The announcement that the Prime Minister has reached an agreement on a deal with the EU is encouraging.

"Businesses in Belfast, like those across Northern Ireland, want a deal and an end to the uncertainty that has undoubtedly harmed our economy."

Connaire McGreevy, the head of Co Down contracting business CTS Projects, said his initial thoughts were that the deal was "very clunky".

"If you forecast into the future, Northern Ireland could be left as an isolated pocket - half in and half out, like the hokey-cokey," he explained.

However, Mr Wolsey said: "Anyone with any foresight could see that these negotiations were going to be a complete disaster. This deal is by no means perfect, but it is better than a no-deal.

"There is still much to be done, however, and it is up to our politicians to work hard to turn this deal into an economic advantage that will benefit all of the people of Northern Ireland."

The deal gives Northern Ireland unfettered access to EU markets and to the UK but introduces controls on some items moving from Great Britain to Northern and then onto the EU.

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, which backed the backstop contained in Theresa May's withdrawal agreement, gave the new arrangements a "guarded welcome". "What is good is that a deal is struck. We can move on to a more positive conversation about the future relationship and Northern Ireland can continue to have tariff-free, quota-free access to both the UK and the EU's single market."

However, he added that the pact introduced "significant" frictions for some trade to Northern Ireland from Great Britain and a "complex and costly regime" to manage tariffs for goods travelling through Northern Ireland to the EU.

FSB NI policy chair Tina McKenzie was also cautiously positive about the deal.

"The alternative - a no-deal outcome - would cause significant disruption to our economy, not least to small businesses, so it is of paramount importance that that is avoided," she said.

"As always, the devil is very much in the detail, though on the face of it, this deal provides Northern Ireland with tariff-free trade with both the EU market and with the rest of the UK."

Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said: "Our members have consistently stated that we need the best deal possible and that we should not exit the EU until a deal is agreed.

"While the details of today's deal are still being considered, we recognise that the future economic relationship with the EU will be largely settled during the forthcoming transition period.

"We therefore give a cautious welcome to what has been agreed today.

"We must now move on to the next stage and secure an extensive free trade deal with the EU to protect our wider domestic economy."