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Bradley's Brexit charm offensive continues in Northern Ireland but she might not have liked all she heard

Secretary of State Karen Bradley visited Wardens of Newtownards, Belfast Telegraph Retailer of the Year, where she met the store's elves Mary Louise Williamson and Tracey Meredith and visual merchandiser Sarah Groves
Secretary of State Karen Bradley visited Wardens of Newtownards, Belfast Telegraph Retailer of the Year, where she met the store's elves Mary Louise Williamson and Tracey Meredith and visual merchandiser Sarah Groves
In Knott's Bakery with Glyn Roberts of Retail NI
Mrs Bradley at Lakeland Dairies where she discussed trade opportunities following Brexit with CEO Michael Hanley (left) and general manager Tim Acheson
Andrew Getty of Knotts Bakery
Jane Campbell
Hilary Kennedy
Heather McCann and daughter Sarah (left) gave their views after Mrs Bradley's visit
Wendy Shearer
Victoria Leonard

By Victoria Leonard

Question: What do elves, teddy bears, a dairy processing factory, a bakery and a submarine have in common?

Answer? They all featured in the Secretary of State's whistle-stop tour of Newtownards yesterday.

As the day began, Karen Bradley swept into Lakeland Dairies' Newtownards factory, which bosses say exports 99.9% of its produce outside Northern Ireland, and where chief executive Michael Hanley said that it would be the company's preference "that there was no Brexit."

Lakeland Dairies brings together over 750 family farms producing 600m litres of milk in Northern Ireland, employing 225 people at Newtownards and supporting some 700 further jobs among suppliers and contractors across Northern Ireland.

About 15% of the products from the Newtownards factory are destined for Europe.

Mr Hanley said that approximately 30% of the firm's total produce was destined for Europe, describing it as the "biggest single trading partner or destination for our products".

"Our preference would be that there was no Brexit, but the vote has taken place and Brexit is going to go forward in some shape or form," he said.

"The deal that's on the table at the moment is a good deal for the Lakeland Dairies NI business. We export a lot of our product off the island of Ireland and this deal facilitates good exports, continuation of business, and us being able to service our farmers and the farm families in Northern Ireland."

General manager for food service operations Tim Acheson said he believed Lakeland Dairies was "fairly well insulated against job losses, depending on what happens with Brexit."

"You could argue that Lakeland is well-positioned by having operations both that will remain within the EU and which will be in future outside the EU," he said.

"I think from a commercial perspective clarity as quickly as possible would be very important. Certainly a positive outcome in the next couple of weeks would give confidence to our customer base.

"We are already getting questions from our customers about continuity of supply."

He revealed that, after the referendum, the company had the opportunity to halt investment towards its major new £5m packing hall - officially opened by Princess Anne in September - but instead committed to the project.

"The planning application went in before Brexit," he said.

"Whenever we heard about the Brexit decision there was an opportunity to stop the investment programme, but as a business we decided to commit. At this stage there's no concern about job losses - in the last couple of months we've increased the permanent workforce of staff."

Later, it appeared the Bradley charm offensive - which included the Secretary of State donning a blue hairnet, goggles and a white overcoat for a factory tour - had worked.

Post meeting, Mr Hanley said Mrs Bradley was "acutely aware" of the importance of a good Brexit deal for local farmers, dairy and dairy processing businesses.

"The Secretary of State recognised the importance of a business like this to Northern Ireland with all the jobs it's creating, and with buying milk from farm families across Northern Ireland," he said.

"I felt that the critical part for us today was that the Secretary of State recognised the importance of being able to access markets as seamlessly as possible," he continued.

From there, it was on to Wardens department store on the town's High Street, where Mrs Bradley was introduced to a pair of smiling elves and admired a 'Bradley' curtain pole.

Jane Campbell, the fourth generation to work in her family's business, said Brexit was a challenge' "Businesses like ours rely on consumer confidence, and confidence is driven by certainty," she said.

"No other Brexit deal has materialised. There will be no ideal solution.

"In addition, we would really welcome the government back at Stormont."

Mrs Bradley then visited High Street store Jonzara, where she admired a display of teddy bears and eyed up potential garden party attire.

Joint owners of Jonzara and the town's Gerry Weber store, Heather McCann and daughter Sarah, feared that stock prices could be hit by Brexit.

"I think someone has to come on and give the legal details of the Brexit deal," said Heather.

"The uncertainty has lasted too long. We are working hard as a family, and if Brexit goes against us I would be really annoyed. All of our brands downstairs are from Germany, so we would be a wee bit worried about accessing them at the same price after Brexit."

Andrew Getty (49) owns Knotts Bakery, which the Secretary of State visited, with his wife Sharon.

"I hadn't seen an empty shop here for years, and there are now six empty shops on the High Street," he said. "This Brexit deal is better than no deal."

Mr Getty said he had tried to "coerce" Mrs Bradley to "get everybody back around the table as soon as possible" at Stormont "because we are rudderless."

"This is a great country, and it is being ruined by stupidity, in-fighting - it's shocking. My feeling was it's an uphill struggle for her."

Meanwhile, the mood on the street was one of frustration, with one member of the public comparing Mrs Bradley to a "submarine."

"I haven't a clue about the job the Secretary of State is doing," said archaeology student Peter Galbraith (55).

"I would consider her a bit like a submarine - she surfaces every now and again.

"I think the EU is on a sticky wicket - if another country leaves they're stuffed.

"They have to be seen to punish us in some way. Maybe it is better if we all crash out.

"We are going to suffer anyway. The impact of the Stormont stalemate in Northern Ireland is very unfortunate.

"However, having lived through the Troubles, when you're not reading about people being murdered every week does it really matter?"

Groomsport woman Hilary Kennedy (70) said she wouldn't know who to vote for in another Assembly election.

"I've lost all confidence," she said. "I think Northern Ireland is a bit of a laughing stock."

Full-time carer Wendy Shearer (50) said it was "important that the Secretary of State is seen out and about. Local politics is totally depressing," she said.

"We're like turkeys voting for Christmas - if there was a poll tomorrow we would vote for the same people.

"It's a wee bit like Bally-go-backwards.

"I voted to stay in Europe as I felt it was better to be joined together on the inside than isolated on the outside.

"Theresa May does a brilliant job.

"There are so many people stabbing knives in her back and trying to climb up them. She can't please the remainers, she can't please the leavers, she can't please Europe. She's on a hiding to nothing."

President of Newtownards Chamber of Trade Gary Hanna said he had expressed concerns about Brexit and the political stalemate to Mrs Bradley.

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts, who was present at Mrs Bradley's walkabout, said the combination of Brexit and no Executive was "adding instability on instability".

"It's not that this deal is the best thing since sliced bread, but it's the only alternative we have to a no deal," he said.

"I think, looking forward, Brexit will be recorded in the history books as a catastrophic decision."

Belfast Telegraph


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