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Brexit like a choice between three-course meal and a bag of crisps, says local CBI boss

Conference: Angela McGowan
Conference: Angela McGowan

By David Chance

The head of the CBI in Northern Ireland has given a guarded welcome to news that a Brexit deal has been struck, although she warned that local business would still suffer because of the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

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"From a business perspective, it is complicated, but it is better than a no-deal," Angela McGowan told a Brexit conference organised by business advisory firm PwC in Dublin.

Ms McGowan warned the meeting that businesses in Northern Ireland had already started to see orders cancelled as a result of the prolonged uncertainty over Brexit.

She said that many customers were simply not prepared to take a risk that supply chains would remain intact after the October 31 exit date.

Ms McGowan said Northern Ireland was likely to be the loser in any future trade deals struck by the UK.

She said such deals would probably aim to reinforce the UK's strengths in the auto and financial services sector and offer concessions in agriculture in return.

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Northern Ireland would lose out because it is dominated by smaller firms and has a significant agriculture sector.

The uncertainty over Brexit has already started to hit the local economy, she said, with bank lending down 20% year on year. "There are firms not doing the extra projects like building a factory," Ms McGowan said. Instead of planning for investment, Ms McGowan noted that one chief executive said he had been involved in 200 hours of meetings over Brexit planning during the past year.

She said that the promise by politicians of ambitious new trade deals for the UK once it left the EU ignored the economic realities of the close relationship between Northern Ireland and its trading partners in the bloc, especially Ireland.

"You are being offered a choice between a three-course meal and a packet of crisps," Ms McGowan told the conference.

Due to Brexit, big firms will not give approval for investment and in some cases are winding down capacity, she added.

The Irish government, especially Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tanaiste Simon Coveney, were far more effective advocates for Northern Irish businesses than Northern Irish politicians, Ms McGowan claimed.

"We feel like it is the Irish government that is standing up for them (Northern Irish people) and their businesses," she said.

Her intervention came as the director-general of the UK's CBI said Boris Johnson's deal left businesses with serious concerns.

Carolyn Fairbairn said that, if agreed by Parliament, the deal would unlock a transition period, guarantee the rights four million citizens living abroad in the UK and the EU and open up a potential new EU-UK partnership.

"It would keep trade flowing freely across the island of Ireland and, most importantly, avoid a damaging no-deal scenario," she stressed.

"Yet business has serious concerns about the direction of the future UK-EU relationship.

"Decades of free and frictionless trade with the UK's largest market, forged by thousands of firms big and small, must not be abandoned.

"Frictionless EU trade and regulatory alignment is vital for UK prosperity and jobs."

She said that the deal was "inadequate" as regards the services sector, which accounts for 80% of the economy.

But Ms Fairbairn added firms would do "everything possible" to make it work if it does pass Parliament.

Belfast Telegraph