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Business anxiety levels in Northern Ireland highest in UK as firms prepare for no-deal

Carolyn Fairbairn
Carolyn Fairbairn
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Anxiety levels among business leaders here are the highest in the UK as they prepare for a no-deal Brexit expected to cost the economy £5bn, the head of the CBI has said.

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Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI director general, spoke after a meeting with business leaders in the province - her ninth in a tour of the UK in the last four days. And she said she heard more fears about the future viability of businesses in Northern Ireland than anywhere else.

She said: "I have just sat down with a fantastic collection of businesses and they are taking preparations for a no-deal very, very seriously. Their efforts to be prepared are extremely strong, and they are doing as much as they can. But there are some distinct characterstics here, partly due to the nature of having so many agri-food businesses where goods are perishable and are extremely difficult to stockpile.

"One of the main preparations in the rest of the UK is to buy warehouse capacity for machine parts and non-perishable foods, but that's not as possible here as we have so much dairy products and meat. I've been very struck on how high the levels of anxiety are among members. They are prepared but there's a limit to how prepared that they can be. Anxiety levels are higher in Northern Ireland than many other parts of the country, but they are high everywhere."

She said firms feared the impact of more veterinary checks, with the number of checks required expected to grow from 19,000 to 1.8 million at a cost of £20 per time. "We are talking massive increases in cost and complexity for what are in many cases small businesses."

She said the CBI has estimated the cost of a no-deal Brexit to the Northern Ireland economy at about £5bn. Ms Fairbairn claimed there was already a movement out of people and capital. "What I hear is that more students are leaving and more companies are moving supply chains - that's all happening much more rapidly here than anywhere else because NI is facing a loss of attractiveness compared to peer countries."

She said she had met leaders from sectors including dairy, poultry, manufacturing and financial services. Asked if any had expressed any advantages from a no-deal Brexit, she said: "The view was that no-deal would be such a setback, a very painful setback, that I didn't hear any silver lining to a no-deal Brexit, absolutely none. It's a one-way street."

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She believed Brexit was an unhelpful backdrop for companies like Bombardier, Harland & Wolff and Wrightbus as they face structural change. "Those firms do have other things going on, but when international investors are looking at an economy, uncertainty is one of the factors that's a deterrent to investment."

The CBI has said it still supports the principles of the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop - though Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for it to be scrapped.

Belfast Telegraph