Brian Irwin: Deal may not be perfect, but it’s far preferable to hard Brexit scenario
The draft withdrawal agreement represents a significant piece of work and deserves to be scrutinised closely given the importance of the issues at stake.
The Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) and its members have done so and fully understand the implications of the agreement and specifically how it impacts on trade in Northern Ireland.
It is our business to understand custom arrangements, the global SPS food safety regime and the world of compliance and regulation.
Armed with all this knowledge and experience, we are well positioned to assess the merits of this deal.
In this context, NIFDA has welcomed the draft withdrawal agreement and sees it as a significant step forward.
Like many other Northern Ireland business bodies, it is our considered opinion that it now provides a way to deliver a smooth exit and an orderly transition to the future relationship with Europe, bringing a degree of clarity which has been lacking for so long.
Critically, it ensures we avoid a 'no-deal' Brexit, which would have been disastrous for Northern Ireland, particularly for the agri-food sector, on which our economy is so reliant.
We simply could not absorb increased customs, tariffs and regulatory costs on trade between Northern Ireland and the EU which would inevitably occur in a no-deal scenario.
While we of course know too well the concerns raised by our members in this regard, we have also noted analysis by the Government itself which was recently reported by the BBC.
This analysis estimated that in a no-deal scenario, the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland would take the brunt of the damage, with NI goods exports falling by up to £1.1bn annually compared to the proposed backstop scenario.
Anything close to that magnitude would clearly have major implications for business and jobs here.
While we accept that this agreement may not be perfect, and further clarification on certain aspects will be required, we are firm in our belief that it is vastly preferable to a no-deal scenario.
It offers us an effective insurance policy in the interim period until any new trading relationship is agreed.
A UK-wide solution that avoids a hard border and allows Northern Irish firms frictionless access to markets in Britain, Republic of Ireland and the European Union could be immensely beneficial to the local economy. Importantly, it offers our members and the wider Northern Ireland economy the best chance of surviving and thriving in a post-Brexit world, which surely should be everyone's aspiration.
We would therefore urge all our political leaders to join with the local business community to support this deal and work together to ensure that the interests of our economy and society take priority over party politics.
They should view the deal as a potential opportunity for Northern Ireland to trade freely within the UK and with all its future trading partners, as well as the EU and all its future trading partners - thereby delivering the best of both worlds.
This could give Northern Ireland an unprecedented competitive advantage over other parts of the UK or EU, which could help transform our economy.
If there are any concerns about constitutional issues associated with this deal, surely economic prosperity and stability of this nature offers the best opportunity for continued peace and protection of the status quo.
Brian Irwin is chairman of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association