Belfast Telegraph

Brexit is the 'biggest threat' to Northern Ireland's food and drink companies

By Margaret Canning

The threat of withdrawal from the EU by the UK is the "biggest cloud on the horizon" for food and drink firms in Northern Ireland, it has been claimed.

Representatives from the sector have called for more debate on the issue of a 'Brexit' later this year.

Farmers are also concerned that the UK government would not make up for the loss of subsidies from Europe in the event of the UK voting to leave the EU.

Michael Bell, director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) said he was "very concerned" over what he said was a lack of debate over the impact Brexit would have on Northern Ireland.

And he said the sector was also in need of an export marketing body.

"We have enjoyed steady and sustained growth within the local food and drink industry over the past 10 years, and the outlook is positive as we aim to create a further 15,000 jobs within the sector by 2020.

"This planned expansion will be greatly accelerated by the creation of a dedicated export marketing body, which would help local companies to access new markets."

But he added: "The biggest cloud on the horizon is the 'Brexit'.

"The EU is a major export market for us, and we would have concerns that a 'Brexit' could potentially hinder growth potential for the local industry."

Food and drink is Northern Ireland's biggest manufacturing sector, with sales of over £4.5m. Around 100,000 jobs are supported by the sector, including farming, retail and distribution, and fishing.

Analysis by think-tank the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in the Republic last year suggested business in Northern Ireland and along the border would be worst hit by a Brexit.

Michael Bell discussed the impact of a Brexit on the sector during an event hosted by Danske Bank.

The bank is holding the 'Advantage' series of talks to give clients the opportunity to hear from leading lights in industry sectors.

Chief executive Kevin Kingston said: "Food and drink is a sector where Northern Ireland punches well above its weight and where the strength of our produce and the innovation of our food and drink companies is leading to success and recognition around the world.

"Danske Bank is forecasting growth of around 2% for the food and drink sector over the course of the next year, but we continue to believe the sector has potential to do much more."

Dr Edgar Morgenroth, a research professor at ESRI, has said business in Northern Ireland would be worst hit by changes to the export relationship with the Republic in the event of a Brexit.

And in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph this month, Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said: "I believe that the people of the North should have their say, but I think Brexit could be bad for agriculture, bad for agri-food." She added: "Sometimes it's easy to say too many European regulations - you can understand where people are coming from, but I don't think that our interests are best served out of Europe. I think our interests are best served in Europe."

Belfast Telegraph