Belfast Telegraph

Watch: Merchant Hotel owner says Brexit plan is 'an opportunity to be grasped' as he picks up Telegraph property award

By Ryan McAleer

One of Northern Ireland's most prominent hospitality figures has said businesses and voters should never forgive the DUP if it fails to grasp what he said was the opportunity proffered by Theresa May's draft Brexit deal.

Bill Wolsey, managing director of the Beannchor group, said Arlene Foster's party had scored "a spectacular own-goal" over its opposition to the deal being championed by the under-pressure Prime Minister.

The businessman, whose hospitality portfolio includes The Merchant Hotel, Bullitt, the Dirty Onion and the Little Wing franchise, was speaking as he was named Personality of the Year at yesterday's Belfast Telegraph Property Awards at the Crowne Plaza in Belfast.

In a hard-hitting speech in front of a room of around 600 people from across the property industry, Mr Wolsey urged businesses to speak out.

"Now we have an opportunity to do something. We need to encourage our politicians to grasp that opportunity. This is no longer a time to keep our head down," he said.

"We have an opportunity because of Brexit to have a foot in both camps. What an opportunity we have for business and when business is strong, that makes the community strong and it's good for all.

"Unfortunately we're represented by politicians, some who have the political vision of Blind Bart, and some who are weighed down heavily by prejudice from the past.

"I think we, as a business community, and the voters of the future, should never forgive them if they don't take this opportunity to improve the lot for all in this country."

The speech followed comments from DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson suggesting that businesses had failed to fully understand the implications of the draft EU withdrawal paper.

The list of groups here backing the deal to date includes the Ulster Farmers' Union, CBI, NI Chamber and the Federation of Small Businesses.

Leaving the stage to rapturous applause and a chorus of congratulations yesterday, Mr Wolsey doubled down on his criticism of politicians, putting the DUP firmly in his cross-hairs.

"I think this has been a spectacular own-goal by the DUP and rather than understanding that, they're compounding this mistake," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"I would be supportive of what's on the table.

"It was obviously a very difficult task that was put in front of Theresa May, because the Brexiteers had absolutely no plan at all.

"She has tried to battle through with a right-wing that won't listen to anything. What she has come up with, while not perfect, is a compromise which I think Northern Ireland has done very well out of.

"This gives us an opportunity to make us an attractive investment opportunity for multinational companies.

"Why our politicians don't accept that, I don't know. It's one that should be grabbed with both hands."

Mr Wolsey said he believed his position reflected that of most businesses.

"I think if you asked any of the 550 people in there, would they grasp this opportunity? Absolutely yes," he added.

"They wouldn't be prevaricating and talking about bringing down Theresa May, they would be welcoming this with open arms.

"Everybody thinks this deal is far better than no deal. It's better than we could have expected and going forward, we can perhaps build on the unique geographical position we have."

He also rejected the DUP's argument that the draft withdrawal deal would undermine Northern Ireland's position in the Union.

"History tells us that any country that has full employment and a contented people, they are not going to break that status quo," he said.

"This is not weakening the Union, if anything it's probably strengthening the Union.

"How the DUP can fail to see this is beyond me, and probably beyond most of the people in that room."

Belfast Telegraph

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