Northern Ireland business leaders support May on Article 50 extension
Business leaders here have cautiously backed Theresa May's request to the EU for an Article 50 extension until the end of June, but said a longer delay may be needed to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
With MPs yet to back a withdrawal deal, the UK is due to leave the EU on April 12.
Yesterday the Prime Minister asked the EU for more time, repeating her earlier request for a June 30 deadline in order to reach a deal. But it is understood that senior EU figures may want a 12-month flexible extension to Article 50.
Northern Ireland's main business bodies appear to support that course.
Chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Anne McGregor, said that while most businesses will support the shorter extension if it averts a disorderly exit, it still leaves companies with little clarity about the future.
"Once again, businesses are left waiting for a consensus on the way forward and are losing faith that they will achieve this," she said. "Rather than be drawn into the politics of Brexit, firms are looking for stability and answers."
Seamus Leheny of the Freight Transport Association said while avoiding a cliff-edge no-deal Brexit is welcome, the fears and anxiety within the industry have yet to be allayed.
"Businesses need long term clarity and it must be the priority of all politicians to get a sensible deal agreed," he added.
"Many businesses who began stockpiling in anticipation of leaving the EU on March 29 are still paying these costs, which they cannot continue to absorb for much longer.
"That is why we need a clear timeframe and plan from Government so that businesses can react accordingly."
Chief executive of Retail NI, Glyn Roberts, said a 12-month extension is a more realistic option to allow time for a cross-party consensus in London and potentially enable a confirmatory referendum.
"No-deal is not an option and it is vital the UK Government takes the time to get it right. We should be in no rush to leave," he said.
Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI predicted the EU is likely to refuse the June 30 request in favour of a longer extension.
He said businesses will need at least a transition period to adapt to Brexit.
"If the UK is to leave the EU, it must be after agreement and not by crashing out. The way to do that is to secure a withdrawal agreement in Parliament," he added.
"If that means more time is needed for discussion between the parties, then so be it."
Roger Pollen, the head of external affairs at Northern Ireland's largest business body, the Federation of Small Businesses, gave Theresa May's request a cautious welcome.
"The uncertainty around the Brexit process is causing our members great concern and is negatively impacting recruitment and investment decisions.
"Accordingly, the Prime Minister's re-stated request for an extension is to be given a cautious welcome, in as much as it helps avoid the immediate risk of a chaotic cliff-edge exit; however, such an extension also prolongs the uncertainty and means we have still not reached the point where businesses can make detailed plans for the future."
Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, echoed the sentiment.
He said: "A further extension, if granted by the EU, could be hugely beneficial, but only if the time can be used effectively to break the political impasse in Parliament and approve a deal.
"What NI retailers can't afford to see is a cliff-edge, no-deal scenario continuing, with all the pressures that brings.
"Rather than face rolling cliff-edge deadlines - March 29 , April 12, May 22, June 30 - MPs must find a compromise which can avoid a disastrous no-deal scenario and secures a transition period in which NI firms can start preparing for life outside of the EU.
"The alternative is a no-deal with rising costs that will affect the most vulnerable in our society."