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Northern Ireland business chiefs call for truly viable alternative as alarm over a no-deal Brexit grows

Ann McGregor
Ann McGregor
Glyn Roberts
Aodhan Connolly
Tina McKenzie
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Northern Ireland's business community last night urged politicians from all parties to work together to find a solution to avoid "disaster" for the province after the draft withdrawal agreement was rejected.

Business groups here who supported the agreement expressed frustration with the continued uncertainty and expressed alarm over the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, called on politicians to find an alternative to the draft agreement to avoid a hard Brexit.

She said that while the chamber's members did not all agree on what a Brexit agreement should involve, she said all wanted to avoid a messy and disorderly no-deal.

"To achieve this we therefore need an agreement that will secure the transition period and protect jobs," she said.

"As businesses wait to see what happens next in Parliament, it is crucial that those at Westminster move beyond tactical manoeuvring and look at all the options in order to avoid a no-deal scenario."

She said firms were in the dark on "too many" aspects of life after March 29.

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"This has already led to many businesses taking action - pausing on recruitment and investment, stockpiling goods, and relocating factories in other parts of the EU. In fact, a third of NI Chamber members are currently putting growth and investment plans on hold in the absence of clarity from Westminster.

"There is however nothing to stop government acting decisively on areas within their control, such as migration and customs procedures.

"For businesses, it's not about political personalities or procedures, it's about results. They want this long and laborious chapter of Brexit to come to a swift conclusion. The endless Westminster back-and-forth only causes business frustration to mount further."

Business groups and the Ulster Farmers Union had formed an unprecedented coalition - in opposition to the DUP - to campaign in favour of acceptance of the proposed deal.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said the result was a "cause for concern" for businesspeople with the province now closer than ever to a "disaster" no-deal.

He said: "Northern Ireland businesses desperately need certainty about the UK's future trading relationship with the EU and will be severely disadvantaged by a no-deal.

"A no-deal Brexit means that Northern Ireland households will face higher prices and less choice on the shelves something they can ill afford."

He urged politicians to find a "workable" alternative which would protect consumers from the costs of losing the benefits of frictionless trade with the EU.

"We are now closer than ever to the possibility of a no-deal that will be a disaster for Northern Ireland."

Tina McKenzie, NI policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said we were now "running out of time" to avoid a no-deal. She said the UK crashing out of the EU would be "deeply damaging for small businesses, causing disruption to supply chains, increasing costs and stifling investment". She described a no-deal as "something which we simply cannot countenance" and called on politicians to "sharpen their focus" and do their utmost to reach agreement in the 10 weeks left before March 29.

Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, said that while imperfect, the draft withdrawal agreement was to be preferred to crashing out without a deal.

"The Government now needs to work on a cross-party basis with Labour and other opposition parties to reach a broader agreement for a withdrawal deal and secure the transition period, protect jobs and a positive future relationship with the EU.

"It is vital that Labour Party leadership meets with the representatives of the business community in Northern Ireland to move this process forward.

"Parliament needs to make it crystal clear that no-deal will not be accepted given the disastrous impact this would have on the economy of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK."

British Irish Chamber of Commerce director general John McGrane said: "With €70bn worth of trade sustaining 400,000 jobs hanging in the balance, the chamber urges parliamentarians on all sides to come together to find a way forward that avoids this outcome."

Belfast Telegraph