Belfast Telegraph

'We are willing to listen' - Northern Ireland business chief calls on those against Brexit plan to produce alternative

By Gareth Cross

The President of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce has warned opponents of Theresa May's Brexit deal that business is "not the enemy" and challenged them to come up with an alternative plan.

Ellvena Graham was speaking to 850 guests at the annual Northern Ireland Chamber President's Banquet at IIC Belfast on Thursday evening.

In a wide-ranging speech Mrs Graham also welcomed the Belfast City Deal and took stock of the impact the lack of a Stormont Executive has had on life in Northern Ireland.

Guest speaker at the event was Jed Mercurio, creator of BBC hit dramas Bodyguard and Line of Duty.

Addressing assembled guests, including Secretary of State Karen Bradley, Mrs Graham said that the Prime Minister's draft Brexit withdrawal agreement was a "welcome step forward" and "definitely much better than a no-deal scenario".

The draft deal has been opposed by the DUP and UUP and faces an uphill battle to get through Parliament with Labour and many of Mrs May's own MPs calling for the deal to be renegotiated.

The DUP is unhappy that the deal will see Northern Ireland aligned with EU rules and remain part of the single market with checks on some goods coming in from the UK to Northern Ireland, if the Brexit backstop is implemented.

The DUP and UUP have called the deal a "threat to the union".

Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Greens have given their backing to the Prime Minister's deal and Mrs Graham called on these parties to use their influence to encourage other politicians to support the deal.

"We’ve received a lot of stick in some quarters for saying this but let me say to our critics – we’re not your opposition," the Chamber President said.

"We’re not the enemy. We want the outcome that’s best for businesses, for consumers, for the economy and for the future stability of Northern Ireland and we’ll do everything we can to ensure that we get it.

"It is fair to say that the Prime Minister’s resilience has been matched only by that of businesses challenged by three years of nonstop political debate and continuous uncertainty.

"We therefore encourage our political representatives who support the draft agreement to do everything in their power to influence political representatives in Britain to join them."

Mrs Graham called on those who were opposed to Mrs May's deal to produce a better plan.

"For those that are not in support of the draft agreement, it is now time to outline your alternative proposals. We are willing to listen," she said.

"At the beginning of 2017, our members were identifying priorities for growth. Chief among them a functioning Executive and no hard border.

"Those priorities are still uppermost today. We have a vibrant and innovative business community that wants to invest and grow but it’s stymied because of the prolonged absence of a regional government and the endless Brexit bickering."

The Chamber President lamented the lack of political cooperation currently in Northern Ireland.

"The Belfast film-maker and Oscar-winner Terry George wrote an article earlier this year recalling the days when Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson struggled through traffic in Los Angeles to visit all the major studios, lobbying for more productions to come to Northern Ireland," Mrs Graham said.

"In his article, Terry asked 'Who’s going to do that now?' It’s a good question. Can you imagine our current leaders at this juncture sharing a car under any circumstances?

"Who will nurture the creative connections now? Well, I’m afraid I have no answer."

Mrs Graham, who is a former head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland, said political progress was needed to unlock Northern Ireland's full potential.

"The Belfast Region City Deal process shows us what can be achieved when you have a genuinely collaborative relationship that’s working for the benefit of everyone," she said.

"But this deal isn’t the end. It’s a beginning. We must somehow unlock the mechanism for additional funding that is so badly needed in so many ways.

"Last week, the Belfast Telegraph provided a list of all the things that are being held up by the lack of an Executive - a pile-up of more than 160 decisions affecting all aspects of Northern Ireland life, all needing the signature of a Minister."

The Chamber President said that Northern Ireland was losing out due to a lack of political representation.

"Big decisions are needed but who will take them? Should this just be left to our civil servants? Is this not the job of our Executive?," Mrs Graham asked.

“Every action, or indeed non-action, has consequences. And the consequence of a lack of real political representation means that we have no consolidated voice to speak for us at a time when we have never needed it more.”

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