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Diane Dodds: 'Brexit is my top priority and the Assembly is cooperating well as we start to deal with it'


Economy Minister Diane Dodds

Economy Minister Diane Dodds

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Economy Minister Diane Dodds

Economy Minister Diane Dodds has said there is a new spirit of cooperation in the Assembly to deal with Brexit - which she said is her top priority in office.

The Upper Bann MLA said she believed parties were now focused on working together to make sure Northern Ireland was well-placed for the future under the protocol to the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

"I have found within the Assembly and the Executive that there is this kind of professional workman-like attitude to getting on with the job and making sure Northern Ireland's priorities are represented. Of course, the issues for Northern Ireland are very, very many," she said.

"We need to make sure we get that unfettered access to the Great Britain market. We need to make sure that goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are not restricted because of bureaucracy."

She welcomed a deal yesterday between Airbus and Bombardier, with the European aerospace giant buying out Bombardier's stake in the A220 jet programme, which started out as the C Series.

"We will be keeping a very tight eye on it to make sure the Belfast workforce and plant is secured, although it's not just about the plant but all the additional companies which feed into it," she said.

"At the moment Airbus seem to have opened up the market and stabilised the whole process. That is hugely important for Belfast."

She also welcomed the approach taken by the new owner of Wrightbus in Ballymena.

"It's early days but they seem to be ramping up employment, looking for new opportunities, and new orders have come on board," she added.

"That's very significant and very important for Ballymena and manufacturing in Northern Ireland in general."

But the former MEP said she is yet to have "direct access" to its new owner Bamford Bus Company or Infrastrata plc, which now owns Harland & Wolff.

"I've been in this post for four weeks. Some of those have also been spent winding up in the European Parliament," she said.

"I intend to be out and about talking to and encouraging business and working with business to maximise the opportunities that we have."

She said her 11-year stint as an MEP had helped her get to know all parts of Northern Ireland.

"We want to see prosperity dispersed right throughout Northern Ireland and because of being an MEP, I've had a lot of contacts with the Chambers and business organisations reflecting the whole of Northern Ireland and that is really important," she said.

Asked whether the DUP has regrets about backing Brexit - amid the prospect of rising prices in Northern Ireland and checks on goods coming in and out of the province - she said: "Well, you know, I sometimes think we have moved on.

"So, I view your choice in terms of Brexit, whether leave or remain, as your democratic choice to make. But the conversation now is that Brexit is a fact and has happened.

"Northern Ireland as part of the UK has left the EU and we need to see everyone working together to make sure we maximise opportunities, that we look at how we can get the protocol operated for Northern Ireland in the best way possible."

"While the process of leaving the EU might have obsessed me in my last job, the actual process of making sure Northern Ireland is properly placed within UK trade deals and within the GB market, that NI firms can trade within the GB market and that they have what we define as what the PM calls unfettered access, now obsesses me.

She said the protocol contained "difficult" elements.

Earlier this week, Invest NI director Donal Durkan told the Assembly committee which scrutinises the work of Mrs Dodds' department that Northern Ireland firms sending goods to Great Britain could face a customs form with 31 entries at a cost of £55 per form.

Mrs Dodds said: "The Government talks about unfettered access and the lightest touch regulation that they can give us.

"Now there is a job of work to do within Executive and Assembly and wider business community to make sure we have that unfettered access and we can have that lightest touch bureaucracy that we possibly can.

"Those are the things that are difficult for Northern Ireland within the protocol and we must make sure that they are minimised in every way that we can.

"There is a mood in the Assembly to make sure those things happen and in the Executive. There is good cooperation on those issues across the parties."

The minister also said she did not want to completely rule out the prospect of a lower rate of corporation tax.

And she added airline connectivity was crucial, including connectivity around Europe.

"As MEP I used to travel from Strasbourg to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Dublin, so connectivity to those really important European hubs would be a really brilliant thing for Northern Ireland," she said.

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