Belfast Telegraph

Leading Northern Ireland business organisations back May's draft deal as way ahead, but DUP is not for moving

Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street yesterday
Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street yesterday

By Adrian Rutherford and David Young

Leading business organisations in Northern Ireland have pledged their support to the draft Brexit deal.

Four influential lobby groups joined together to hail the withdrawal agreement as a "welcome step forward".

It came amid mounting pressure for the DUP to drop their opposition to the text.

The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) claimed a no-deal Brexit would be "absolutely disastrous" for the local farming and agri-food sector.

However, last night a senior DUP figure said the party's view on the agreement had not changed. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he did not believe it was the best deal for Northern Ireland.

It follows days of chaos over the Brexit plan agreed between the UK and the EU.

As the fallout continued yesterday:

  • Stephen Barclay was named the new Brexit Secretary as Prime Minister Theresa May set about filling her cabinet after several of her top team quit.
  • Speculation grew that the PM's critics have the numbers required to trigger a confidence vote within days.
  • Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admitted it would be "very difficult" to avoid a hard border in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
  • Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann branded the inclusion of the backstop in the withdrawal text as a "monumental error in judgment".

The proposed deal has sparked chaos within the Conservative Party since it was unveiled on Wednesday. Mrs May's premiership is hanging by a thread with a series of ministerial resignations and calls from her own MPs for her to stand aside.

A vote of no confidence in her leadership could take place as early as next week.

The DUP - which Mrs May relies on to stay in power - are also unhappy.

Yesterday, however, leading business organisations representing Northern Ireland issued a joint statement in support of the draft agreement.

The Confederation of British Industry NI, Federation of Small Businesses NI, Institute of Directors NI and NI Chamber of Commerce said the deal "provides some much needed clarity that local businesses have been calling for".

"While by no means perfect, it provides a platform to move onto the critical next stage and allows work to begin on the formulation of a comprehensive future trade deal," it said. "Crucially, the provision for an extended transition period offers our members the flexibility and time to adjust to a new relationship with the EU which they must be allowed to do in as smooth and orderly a manner as possible."

It repeated warnings that a no-deal Brexit would be "deeply damaging" and would represent "a very bad outcome" for businesses, consumers and the economy.

Earlier, the UFU, which represents thousands of farmers, many of whom would traditionally vote DUP, called on the party to vote for the text.

UFU chief executive Wesley Aston told the Nolan Show: "We want to make sure we avoid a no-deal situation. No deal for Northern Ireland agri-food and farming in particular would be absolutely disastrous and we have made that patently clear over this last while."

He added: "We would support the deal going through and against that background we would ask the DUP to consider voting for this deal."

UFU president Ivor Ferguson told the Belfast Telegraph independent reports had concluded that a no-deal Brexit would have disastrous consequences for farm businesses and the economy here.

He said: "Ultimately, we would have preferred a UK-wide solution. However, this agreement does provide an insurance policy to prevent a no deal outcome."

Brian Irwin, chairman of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, also hailed the draft withdrawal agreement, saying it "provides a way to deliver a smooth exit and an orderly transition to the future relationship with Europe".

But speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the DUP's view of the deal has not changed.

"We very much respect that there are people within the business community and farming who have a different view to us on Brexit, and indeed many of them campaigned against Brexit in the first instance," he said.

"Therefore it comes as no surprise that they would want to support a deal that keeps Northern Ireland locked into the EU in terms of both customs and the single market.

"While we respect their opinion, we disagree with their conclusion that this is the best deal we can get for Northern Ireland. We believe that a border in the Irish Sea is not in the interests of either our farmers or our business owners, because Great Britain is by far our biggest and best market.

"It is our view that anything that creates barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in economic terms is not good for our economy."

Earlier, the Lagan Valley MP faced criticism over comments on the BBC's The View when he was asked to respond to comments supporting the deal from the UFU and the Northern Ireland food and drink sector.

"I don't believe they have read the detail of this, they have not read the 500 pages," he had said.

Ian Marshall, a former UFU president turned Irish senator, accused Sir Jeffrey of being "disrespectful".

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