Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland 'still in limbo' one year after Brexit vote

By John Mulgrew

Northern Ireland is none the wiser about what Brexit will look like for businesses a year after the European Union referendum, it has been claimed.

Ensuring there is no hard border with the Republic still remains a priority here.

Exactly 12 months on from the EU referendum last June, which was narrowly won by those in favour of leaving, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK have avoided the worst aspects of a recession.

But some big companies have already made plans to set up shop in the Republic in order to prepare for Brexit.

That includes pharmaceutical giant Almac, which this year announced a new facility in Dundalk, Co Louth, to guarantee continued single market access following the UK's exit.

However, exports from some manufacturers here have actually increased, due to the weak pound.

Tourism has also benefited, with Northern Ireland now a cheaper place to holiday.

However, fears still remain, with the UK expected to leave not only the single market but the customs union, and that some form of border could be introduced.

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said: "A year on, we are none the wiser in terms of what the future will look like. That lack of certainty has fed into concern in the business community, people scrambling around to look for information to help them plan.

"In the extreme, it will include people leaving Northern Ireland and the UK to get certainty in the single market."

He said the UK Government must ensure that there was no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Based on current rules, the EU will be required to set up a customs frontier in the Republic.

There will also be a requirement in any new customs arrangement for the UK to protect its border, and to ensure it collects tax and tariffs.

As negotiations between Westminster and the EU begin, Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested the UK could stay in the EU for an extra four years with a "transitional deal".

Meanwhile, new figures show Northern Ireland relies on imports from the EU to a greater extent than previously thought.

Ann McGregor, chief executive of the NI Chamber, said that the last 12 months had been "marked by uncertainty for all".

"While negotiations between the two are still in their early stages, we are in a state of limbo 12 months after the vote on key issues," she said.

"These include labour mobility, where any increased restrictions on labour mobility will have a significant impact on the growth of the business sector, and market access where a return to border controls and trade tariffs could be a real challenge to a number of sectors.

"Without clear directions, it is very difficult for businesses to make plans for the future and grow."

Richard Ramsey, chief economist with Ulster Bank, said that "one of the positive changes is that stock markets are now in a much better place than they were this time last year".

But he added that while tourism is up, along with exports and increased shopper numbers from the Republic, "the exchange rate has also been a double-edged sword, making imports more expensive".

He said: "Linked to this, the consumer outlook is more challenging now than it was last year. Inflation is a major challenge for consumers and consumer-sensitive sectors, and is much higher than it was in June 2016."

Dr Esmond Birnie of Ulster University said: "Sometimes what is most significant is what didn't happen.

"Contrary to Treasury forecasts and the then-Chancellor, there was not an immediate and profound UK recession."

Belfast Telegraph

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