Belfast Telegraph

We're not the enemy: Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce chief says agreement critics should offer new plan

By Margaret Canning

The president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry has told those opposed to the draft Withdrawal Agreement that the business world is not "their enemy" and urged politicians to end their "Brexit bickering".

Around 850 guests attended last night's chamber dinner in Belfast - one of the business calendar's biggest get-togethers.

Addressing those opposed to the draft deal, Ellvena Graham, who was making her final speech as chamber president, told the gathering at ICC Belfast at the Waterfront that it wanted to hear their alternative proposals. 

"We are willing to listen," she said.

          

With the Executive absent for nearly two years, Ms Graham (below) asked whether politicians here had "lost the plot".

The chamber has said it supports the draft Withdrawal Agreement reached by Prime Minister Theresa May with the remaining 27 EU states.

It includes a backstop arrangement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The stance of the NI Chamber, shared by the other main business groups, has placed it in opposition to the DUP, which is against the agreement and has urged the UK Government to seek further negotiations with the EU.

While Ms Graham's speech did not refer explicitly to the DUP last night, she said the chamber's pro-agreement stance had caused it some difficulties with "critics".

"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," she 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 will do everything we can to ensure that we get it."

Last night, Ms Graham said the growth of innovation in the economy was being held back by the absence of a Stormont Executive and "endless Brexit bickering".

She said: "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."

Ms Graham added: "After a long period of negotiation we now have a draft Withdrawal Agreement which is undoubtedly a welcome step forward for the majority of businesses in Northern Ireland and it is definitely much better than a no-deal scenario.

"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.

"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 that Northern Ireland needed arrangements to ensure continued access to workers from overseas.

"Our companies are committed to developing homegrown talent but that alone is not enough to fill the skills gap," Ms Graham stressed.

She said the province needed a tailored approach, rejecting a £30,000 minimum salary threshold for migrant workers after Brexit, which was contained in a report by the migrant advisory committee.

Last night's event also heard from TV writer Jed Mercurio, who has created TV shows Line of Duty, which is filmed in Belfast.

Ms Graham referred to an article by Belfast-born producer Terry George, who made Hotel Rwanda.

In the article, the filmmaker had discussed the willingness of then First Minister Peter Robinson and his Deputy Martin McGuinness to visit film producers in Los Angeles to encourage them to work in Northern Ireland.

Their work led to the arrival of producers HBO, which filmed eight seasons of fantasy series Game of Thrones - delivering a major boost to the film industry, tourism and economy.

She said: "Game of Thrones and HBO and the others didn't come here by accident.

"There was a lot of support from the previous generation of Northern Ireland's political leadership. They stepped out of their comfort zones too.

"The Belfast filmmaker 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.

"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."

She said that if political life in Northern Ireland was a dramatic production, it was "stuck in the second act".

"The tension's still rising, the stakes are even higher but there's no progress towards act three.

"No resolution. It makes me wonder - do our politicians no longer care? Or have they simply lost the plot?"

At the start of this year, Ms Graham, who is a former head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland and a chairman of all-island electricity company ESB, urged politicians to lift Northern Ireland out of the "quagmire" of political stalemate.

Ms Graham also told the guests last night that she will be succeeded as chamber president by IT company Allstate head, John Healy.

Belfast Telegraph

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