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Government going round in circles over Brexit, says Northern Ireland Chamber chair

By Margaret Canning

The head of one of Northern Ireland's biggest business bodies has accused MPs of "going round in circles" on Brexit this week.

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Tuesday night's votes included the passing of an amendment tabled by Sir Graham Brady calling for Prime Minister Theresa May to go back to the EU to require "alternative arrangements" to the backstop.

The backstop and the withdrawal agreement have been supported by business bodies in Northern Ireland.

A majority of MPs also voted in favour of an amendment to reject leaving without a deal.

Ann McGregor, chief executive of the NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: "Government and Parliament are still going round in circles when businesses and the public need answers."

She added that in the "real world, the result of Westminster's interminable wrangling is market uncertainty, stockpiling, and the diversion of staff, money and investment".

Tina McKenzie, the policy chair for the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland, said Tuesday night's votes were a "seminal moment" in the Brexit process.

"While it is welcome that Parliament signalled it would not support a no-deal, this is not legally binding," she stressed.

"It is therefore crucial that Parliament and the Government do everything they possibly can to reach agreement in the coming weeks."

She said business was also concerned by the Brady amendment because "it is crucial that any changes withdrawal agreement continue to have the effect of ensuring frictionless trade across these islands".

The Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade said it was disappointed that the Commons had voted for alternative arrangements to the backstop, which was negotiated to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Chief executive Colm Shannon said: "The Prime Minister told us that the withdrawal agreement and the backstop were the only ways to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

"An open border is essential for our local businesses and there is a real fear we are heading for no deal."

Meanwhile, the president of the Ulster Farmers' Union, which also supports the withdrawal agreement, said uncertainty following the rejection of the backstop on Tuesday night was "very damaging".

Ivor Ferguson said: "With March 29 less than 60 days away, decisions need to be taken urgently and a deal agreed.

"Leaving the EU without a deal would be catastrophic for Northern Ireland's farming families and their businesses.

"No deal means high tariffs on our exports, creating an effective trade embargo and the possibility of lower-standard imports flooding the UK market.

"These practical issues will have an immediate and profound impact on farmers, causing major disruptions to the supply chain, crippling the industry and rendering our farmers uncompetitive."

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said that a way forward was not clear after MPs passed the Brady Amendment.

He added: "It remains to be seen how this can be progressed as the EU has been very clear that the existing withdrawal agreement cannot be changed."

Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, stressed: "Northern Ireland businesses urgently need the Government to provide greater certainty about their future trading relationship with the EU and what they will do to make sure there is frictionless trade across Ireland."

Belfast Telegraph

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