Ex-DUP minister Simon Hamilton says no-deal Brexit could do untold damage to Northern Ireland economy
A no-deal Brexit has the potential to cause "untold damage" to the local economy, a former DUP finance minister has said.
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Simon Hamilton, who headed up three Stormont departments in his time as an MLA, said the withdrawal agreement drawn up by ex-Prime Minister Theresa May was preferable to crashing out of the EU without a deal.
That stands in stark contrast to the position of Mr Hamilton's former party, which was opposed to the deal and the controversial backstop contained within it.
Speaking as he settled into his new role as chief executive of Belfast Chamber, Mr Hamilton, who was once tipped as a future leader of the DUP, said the business community needed to know how Brexit would affect their ability to operate.
"There's a lot of different analysis about a no-deal Brexit and about what the impact would be, but I think that if an exit is going to happen, it needs to be as orderly as possible," said Mr Hamilton, who is also a former Stormont Economy Minister.
"(It needs to) give people the opportunity to prepare and to know what is going to be in place. In that sense, a no-deal ought to be avoided at all costs.
"There is such uncertainty about what the impact will be.
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"There are huge costs for business to deal with and it isn't just the financial cost. What does it mean for hiring staff, retaining staff, accessing finance and getting future investment?"
Mr Hamilton, who has consistently refused to reveal how he voted in the referendum, despite his then party campaigning in favour of leaving, continued: "Businesses are also really concerned about consumer confidence. They're really, really worried that people may not be spending.
"The business community needs time to prepare, but no-deal will be hugely damaging to lots of aspects of our economy.
"It's still quite fragile and the last thing we need to inject is something which could potentially do untold damage because, at this stage, we don't know the extent of that damage.
"Seventy-eight percent of our members were supportive of the withdrawal agreement when Theresa May brought it forward.
"I'm not saying that it was perfect or ideal, but at that time it gave some certainty about what was happening and also time to prepare for it.
"The situation around Brexit changes from day to day and hour to hour.
"I've asked members their views and taken those views on board. Without getting into the specifics of the responses to the survey, there is clear concern about a no-deal and its impact.
"There is uncertainty generally because we don't know how no-deal is going to play out.
"Even though it looks like there isn't going to be a no-deal in the immediate future, Boris Johnson can bring back a no-deal to Parliament and ask it to vote on it.
"There are all sorts of concerns that down the line, maybe in three months, there is another risk of another cliff-edge."
Responding to the possibility of a Northern Ireland-only backstop, which his former DUP colleagues have described as unacceptable, Mr Hamilton said: "It's very hard to comment because we don't know what that may look like."
However, he stressed that the priority for the business community in Northern Ireland at the moment was clarity around the impact of Brexit.
"I suppose what they are saying to people in my former profession is that they want solutions, they want this sorted out and they want some certainty so they can plan for the future," he said.
Mr Hamilton, who was Economy Minister for just under a year before the collapse of the Assembly in 2017, also said businesses were facing the combined challenge of uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the ongoing political vacuum at Stormont.
He said while Belfast had flourished in the past decade, a range of policies and plans that would help the city to improve further had stalled without a devolved government.
"Brexit has been going on for a couple of years. Coupled with the absence of an Assembly and Executive, it becomes doubly problematic because if the government was functioning, at least we would have some decisions being taken and some progress being made," he explained.
Having taken up his post last Monday, the fallout from Brexit and the absence of a government at Stormont will remain high on the agenda, but Mr Hamilton is also concerned with raising the profile of his organisation.
He is keen to spread awareness that Belfast Chamber represents all areas of business in the city and he hopes to work with organisations such as Belfast City Council to help implement improvements that will benefit the whole economy.
He said infrastructure developments and creating more green spaces would help to drive up footfall in the city.
"The fire at Primark, just to see it happening, was horrendous," Mr Hamilton added.
"One of my first jobs was selling shoes in the city centre, so I walked past the building thousands of times. You don't really think about it, but to see that beautiful building up in flames, it was awful.
"At the same time, people across Northern Ireland responded really well. People came together and recognised the city was struggling and they didn't want to see that happening anymore.
"Footfall in the city was up about 20% last Christmas. I think that was down to the fact that people made an effort to go into town to support the affected businesses.
"Unfortunately, that was only temporary and footfall went down again. We need to work hard to encourage people to come to the city.
"It does still look like the street is closed off. We're working with a range of partners to see if the cordon or barrier can be reduced in size, particularly as we are coming up to the busiest time of year.
"The fire at Primark was the darkest hour in the city in a long, long time, but it proved how important retail is to the city centre.
"Retail is still at the heart of a vibrant and bustling city centre. It can't just be about offices and a handful of shops - it has to be a mixture and retail is a huge part of that."
Mr Hamilton also said reshaping the infrastructure of the city would play an important part in encouraging more people into Belfast, and pointed to the success of the Gilder service, linking the west and east of the city.
"It shouldn't just be about making everywhere pedestrian areas, but perhaps looking at making them more pedestrian and cycle-friendly," he continued.
"I was in Zurich on holidays during the summer and they are really pedestrian-friendly.
"There are ways of making areas welcoming to pedestrians without closing them down to cars."
Mr Hamilton also touched on the controversial subject of Sunday trading rules. "It isn't just about extending opening hours and making it the same as other days of the week," he said.
"We want to make it about the experience. It's not just a shopping day, it's a day for experiences, so how can we use the public spaces we have to encourage families into the city centre?
"It's about someone checking out of a hotel at 11am and there isn't anything open until a couple of hours later. We need to think about how we can do it in a way which is sensitive and understanding because there are people who may not want to work on a Sunday.
"We need to be looking at restaurants and coffee shops and events in our public spaces, but we also need to be sensitive that it isn't just another day."