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Business chiefs hopeful draft EU Brexit text will allay hard Irish border fears

By Ryan McAleer

Business leaders in Northern Ireland have expressed hope that a draft text reached between the UK and EU will avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.

While the full detail of the document has yet to be published, it's understood that the draft includes a backstop arrangement to temporarily keep the whole of the UK inside the customs union in the event of no deal, with additional measures in Northern Ireland to ensure a frictionless Irish border.

Seamus Leheny of the Freight Transport Association said yesterday that Theresa May's Government and the EU's negotiating team appeared to have listened to the evidence, stating that the agreement will "help keep Northern Ireland trading".

"It should be clear by now that no-deal concerns are not 'project fear' but 'project fact'. Without an agreement on logistics there will be major challenges in keeping food in shops and factories running after Brexit.

"The nature of the all-island economy and subsequent supply chains means that 70% of what's inside lorries moving goods from the Republic to Northern Ireland is intermediate goods which are the ingredients and components used to make the end products we export to GB," he said.

"If barriers and tariffs were to be placed in front of these vital supply chains, then it not only means they become less competitive in cost, it jeopardises their actual existence."

However, Mr Leheny said further assurances will be needed to avoid friction in the movement of goods across the Irish Sea.

Although the frequency of goods vehicles crossing the border is more than five times that which crosses the Irish Sea, the value of goods Northern Ireland exports to Britain (£14.6bn) is much greater than what is exported to the Republic (£4bn).

Speaking from London yesterday, director general of the British Irish Chamber, John McGrane, said: "This development could potentially deliver the breakthrough that British and Irish businesses have long sought and, if finalised, will allow businesses to continue to trade with confidence that a transition period will now be delivered."

Calling for businesses to voice their support, Mr McGrane added: "The certainty that will come from having an agreed withdrawal treaty will encourage these businesses to continue to trade and invest in each other's economies."

Meanwhile, Alan McCulla of the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation (ANIFPO) said he wanted to read the entire text before coming to a definitive position.

"Clearly Northern Ireland's fishermen have suffered from decades of mismanagement and inequality at the hands of the Common Fisheries Policy. If this is coming to an end, it will be welcomed.

"There will be challenges, but the opportunities outweigh these by far.

"Economically, fishing is small, but with a future fisheries policy that reflects equality, respect and integrity towards NI fishermen, we will grow."

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