Belfast Telegraph

Have you a magic wand to deal with hard Brexit, Northern Ireland port boss asks Gove

Minister on Warrenpoint visit

Michael Gove speaking to the media during his visit
Michael Gove speaking to the media during his visit
Michael Gove tours Warrenpoint Port with CEO Claire Guinness and financial director Kieran Grant
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove was asked if he had "a magic wand" in Warrenpoint Port yesterday as he attempted to reassure business leaders about plans for a no-deal Brexit.

The port's CEO, Clare Guinness, said it "was impossible to feel confident" the Government was prepared for the reality of a no-deal and that Mr Gove's visit had not changed this.

With an annual turnover of £6m, freight passing through Warrenpoint is equally spread between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

A total of 70 people are employed directly by the port, with another 1,500 jobs also dependant on the operation.

Ms Guinness said she fears seeing ships with cargo queuing at sea, causing untold tailbacks.

As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Mr Gove is tasked with preparing the UK for Brexit "come what may" on October 31.

"We've stressed we're going to have a continuity approach that will privilege the flow of goods into the UK including Northern Ireland," he said.

"We've also stressed that there is an obstinately cast-iron commitment not to have a hard border and not to have infrastructure on the border."

Mr Gove said the Government would spend "whatever it takes" on no-deal preparations.

He disagreed the Government would need to soften its opposition to a backstop to have any hope of agreeing a new deal with the European Union.

"We've explained what it is with the backstop that causes a particular challenge for UK parliamentarians," he said.

"There are two particular challenges, one is a democratic challenge."

In particular, he said this meant citizens in Northern Ireland would be living under rules they had no chance to vote on.

"The other is that the backstop creates an expectation, a glide path to continued alignment at a level that's inconsistent, at the moment, with being fully outside the customs union and fully outside the single market.

"That's the reason why the House of Commons hasn't secured a majority. We've laid out those concerns, we stand ready to work with the Irish Government or EU partners to resolve these problems."

He continued: "We want a deal, we believe that a deal is eminently doable. We've spelt out what we think is problematic with the backstop and why it needs to be removed.

"My role is to make sure the United Kingdom, both the Government and citizens and businesses, are as well prepared as they can be whatever the outcome of those negotiations."

Mr Gove went on to say he was "heartbroken" that Harland & Wolff had entered administration, but promised that other businesses which struggled because of Brexit would get help. He said a Government package called Operation Kingfisher would soon be rolled out to help viable businesses which "temporarily" experience some "bumps in the road" as well as helping them to identify new opportunities.

Pressed for more detail, he said more would be revealed in the coming weeks.

He also downplayed fears that 45,000 cows in Northern Ireland could face being culled due to possible harsh trade tariffs on milk prices if there was a no-deal Brexit.

"One of my jobs is to help the agriculture sector or food and drink sector, whatever the circumstances of October 31," he said. He denied that every business he had spoken to in Northern Ireland felt Brexit would hurt their profits, but declined to say who backed the Government plans.

Speaking afterwards, Ms Guinness said: "The meeting went quite well in so far as he was listening to what we had to say. We gave him an overview of our business and how it's a pivotal role in the supply chain as a Northern Irish port between Belfast and Dublin and tried to explain the impact a no-deal would have."

She added: "I think it's impossible to feel confident at the minute. To my mind I feel less confident as time goes on and the no-deal situation appears to become more and more likely."

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