Belfast Telegraph

It's this Brexit deal or catastrophe for Northern Ireland, say business leaders after Prime Minister meeting

By Jonathan Bell

Northern Ireland business leaders have said the only option for Brexit is the deal secured by Prime Minister Theresa May warning to crash out of Europe would be "catastrophic" for Northern Ireland.

It comes after almost 50 Northern Ireland employers and business groups travelled to London for a meeting with the Prime Minister.

It has been described as a "who's who" of the firms in Northern Ireland and included the heads of some major employers. Major businesses were represented as well as hauliers, farmers, pharma, retailers and those in the hospitality industry.

One of those in attendance said he could never have imagined such a collegiate of Northern Ireland business in the one place and sharing a platform, describing it as "one positive" to come from Brexit.

After the meeting the Prime Minister thanked those who supported her draft agreement.

"Your voices are incredibly important," she said.

The group met for around an hour with the Prime Minister. Also attending was defacto PM David Lidington and the Business Secretary Greg Clark.   It was described a very positive engagement with a spontaneous round of applause at one stage.

Those attending said the Prime Minister told the group that after the political declaration on the post-Brexit trading relationship was agreed by both sides' negotiators, there was less of a likelihood the contentious backstop would come into force.

"At the end of the day that future relationship is what is going to sort this big problem out for us at home and for here in the UK," Stephen Kelly of manufacturing NI said.

The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said the meeting was essential for businesses to express their message that while the deal was not perfect, "it is better than the complete disaster that would come from a no-deal cliff edge Brexit".

"It is clear that there is much work to do to protect NI business and households from rising costs that quite simply we can't afford to absorb," Aodhan Connolly said.

"The deal isn't perfect but with five months to go we need certainty. And this is not waving red flags. This is what is in the technical notices published by Her Majesty's Government."

He said Stormont was badly needed to help fight their cause, but hoped he could secure support from the Commons. He said he was delighted to have the Prime Minister listen to their concerns.

It was not a case of a fan club showing up. Colin Neill

A group also met with a Labour party delegation before the meeting. It was described as "frustrating". One of those in attendance said the party was "wedded" to it six tests for a deal and assured them a better deal could be had - but were unable to explain what that could look like and how they could achieve it in the time available.

Chief Executive of Hospitality Ulster Colin Neill said the Prime Minister outlined the current position and the next steps to be taken during their meeting in Number 10.

"It was important to be here it was not a case of a fan club showing up," he told the BBC.

"We deal in facts, we have surveyed out members. 74% are in favour but that also means 26% aren't and have concerns.

"Our sector has concerns around the level playing field, VAT and the passenger duty and the UK government being able to flex those.

"Those are genuine concerns but they have to be weighed up against the risk of a no deal."

He added: "It is fair to say, when it comes down to it the domestic economy is critical for our industry. A no-deal crash out would damage us beyond belief and that is really where our membership is.

"It is a factual-based stance. I don't think anyone thinks this is an amazing deal.. it's a case of it's the only deal."

He said the Prime Minister assured them they would have unfettered access to the Great Britain market and for those goods coming in the other direction.

"There were representatives from the large supermarkets there - who are a huge bulk of the stuff which comes from GB - and they are content this deal services that.

"We all deal with checks, the important thing is we need a deal, we need an end date and hopefully an end date with some light at the end of the tunnel and we believe that's what we have.

We want to avoid a hard Brexit at all costs for business and for jobs and the prosperity of Northern Ireland. Claire Guinness

"We did not go out to our industry and said this this deal is wonderful.

"We went out and said this is the framework allows, here's what it might not allow and at this moment there is nothing on the table except take this deal or no deal.

"And from our industry the answer has to be take this deal."

Claire Guinness from Warrenpoint Harbour said a strong message of support went out to the Prime Minister.

"I think it was important for the business leaders and the business community in Northern Ireland to show their support for the Prime Minister.... I hope she does get the deal through."

"We want to avoid a hard Brexit at all costs for business and for jobs and the prosperity of Northern Ireland."

Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI said he hoped the deal would get backing in Parliament.

"The alternative is no deal and that is a disaster for the Northern Ireland economy."

In a statement, the Prime Minister said: "Taken together – the draft Withdrawal Agreement and the broad terms of our new relationship – should provide your businesses with the reassurance that I know is so important to you.

“That’s a transition period to avoid a cliff-edge for businesses and to provide the certainty you need to invest.

“An outline relationship that creates a new free trade area with the EU, with no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions.

“And no hard border within the island of Ireland.”

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