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Northern Ireland businesses look to the future but still have Brexit questions


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Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday

Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday

PA

Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday

Northern Ireland's best-known supporter of Brexit from the world of business has said today is a day for reconciliation, not celebration, as the UK leaves the EU tonight.

Irwin Armstrong, the head of Ballymena-based medical testing company Ciga Healthcare, has been a major supporter of the UK's exit from the EU since before the referendum of 2016.

And he said he remained a strong supporter of Brexit, despite the fears among much of the business world of the impact on Northern Ireland of checks on goods coming from Great Britain, and the prospect of paperwork on goods travelling from Northern Ireland into GB.

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that the Prime Minister will next week make a speech in which he will say that border checks will be accepted as a consequence of the UK regaining its own sovereignty and avoiding being a "rule taker".

The Downing Street press office yesterday said it would not be commenting.

Aodhan Connolly, the head of the NI Retail Consortium, said the apparent confirmation of border checks would mean the difference between "a brick wall and a paper wall" in the Irish Sea.

However, Mr Armstrong said he believed any border checks would be minimal and that discussions of the impact of checks had been overblown.

And he said he did not expect his own business to be hit. "I don't expect that checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland will affect my business and the only material we bring in is some packaging."

He said that a large percentage of imports into Northern Ireland from Great Britain were through supermarkets, which he claimed were likely to secure trusted trader status.

He said he believed discussions over perceived problems around Brexit had been overblown since the referendum.

"With Brexit, across the piece we have always had somebody trying to throw up an obstacle, but every time the obstacles didn't materialise.

"We were expected to enter recession but we went in the opposite direction and added jobs."

Mr Armstrong said he believed that Northern Ireland would be in an "enviable position" following Brexit, in a position to trade with the rest of the UK, and with the EU.

But he said he would not be celebrating tonight, when the UK's departure from the EU takes place officially at 11pm. "I won't be having any celebrations. I think the time is here for reconciliation. We'll just smile calmly and say we got there.

"I don't see the reason for celebration, as I think there's a lot of work to do. We need an awful lot more trade deals with Australia, New Zealand and the US, to name just a few."

Colm Shannon, the chief executive of Newry Chamber of Trade, said today "was a day we hoped would never happen, but it is happening".

"We'll just have to face the consequences of that, and we'll be looking to UK government to sign up to commitments UK has made and that there won't be a hard border."

Seamus Leheny, the NI manager of the Freight Transport Association, said the uncertainty which had dominated the years since 2016 had now gone.

But he said the arrangements under the Brexit withdrawal agreement brought good and bad. "We retain access to EU for goods but not for services, so we've solved half the problem (of leaving the single market. The key thing is we avoided no-deal.

"Business stood as one as we fought NI's corner so trade wouldn't be affected negatively. There is still a lot of uncertainty with the Irish Sea and trade with GB and unfettered access to what is an important market.

"A lot of things have been answered, but a lot remained unanswered.

"It's a very quick turnaround time and we have less than a year to prepare for fundamental changes in the way we do business."

Angus Wilson of potato processor Wilson's Country in Craigavon, said he was happier now with the prospect of Brexit.

"I'm a lot happier than I was before, on the basis that as a smallish business, the all-island trade is very important to us and that now feels safe. I'm also happy that there's a fairly big majority in government, so any decisions can be a bit more central and reasonable.

"The all-island economy feeling safe is a big positive and hopefully that lasts after negotiations, though I'm a bit worried about the east-west and how that will look, but overall, I'm glad a no-deal has been avoided now and I hope that there won't be one at the end of this year."

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