Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Why Northern Ireland business leaders are right not to be cowed by DUP's Project Fear over May's withdrawal plan

Prime Minister's Brexit deal will mean the best of both worlds for firms in the province, argues Alban Maginness

So farcical has Brexit become that it brings to mind the comic novel of the late master of comedy, Spike Milligan, Puckoon. In that brilliant book, Milligan parodies the absurdity and madness of the task of the Irish Boundary Commission attempting to meaningfully establish the meandering boundary between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.

Due to the idiocy of the commission, the new border partitions into two parts the imaginary village of Puckoon, leaving most of the village in the Free State and the rest in Northern Ireland.

If readers want some light relief from the mind-numbing detail of Brexit, then Puckoon is surely a humorous distraction. But the serious lesson put forward by Milligan in Puckoon is the innate absurdity of the border, which underlines the consequential damage that will befall all of us in the scary eventuality of a hard border arising out of a bad deal, or a no-deal, between the British Government and Brussels.

To the general surprise and relief of most right-minded people, Theresa May has produced a deal with Brussels. Most informed experts agree that it is an imperfect deal, but one that is liveable with. There is a danger in all of this of seeking a perfect deal and rejecting what is, in effect, not a bad deal.

In essence, Theresa May has made a very significant compromise by agreeing to keep the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, within the customs union. Although we will not be formally treated differently from the rest of the UK, we will be subject to EU rules and conditions as far as the single market is concerned, thus allowing free trade between north and south and with the rest of the EU.

At the same time, this region will be able to trade freely with the rest of the UK, though there will be some regulatory differentiation between here and Britain. In other words, NI Inc will enjoy the best of both worlds.

Leading entrepreneur and Belfast Telegraph Property Awards winner Bill Wolsey, the owner of the highly successful Merchant Hotel, described May's plan as an "opportunity to be grasped".

He went on to say: "Arlene Foster's party has scored a spectacular own-goal over its opposition to the deal between London and Brussels."

He also urged businesspeople to speak out: "We need to encourage our politicians to grasp that opportunity. This is no longer a time to keep our head down."

This is sensational stuff from the Belfast businessman. And his speech was clearly supported, given the rapturous applause by the 600 businesspeople present at the awards.

Mr Wolsey added: "Unfortunately, we are represented by politicians, some of whom have the political vision of Blind Bart, and some who are weighed down heavily by prejudice from the past."

Mr Wolsey's speech chimes with the near-universal opinion of all the major business interest groups, from the CBI to the NI Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and, significantly, even the Ulster Farmers' Union, which is seen as being traditionally more sympathetic to the DUP.

But the DUP claim to know better than our business community. Arlene Foster says that they have got it wrong and has chided businesspeople, saying that they were in danger of being exploited for political reasons.

She was annoyed by the current Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, for daring to brief the Chamber of Commerce in Belfast about the Brexit plan. Surely Mrs Bradley has not just got a right, but a duty to brief those business people directly affected by Brexit?

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was particularly insulting to the business sector, claiming on television that they had not read the document. This is ironic, when his own leader, Mrs Foster, admitted that, when she was Economy Minister, she failed to read important official documents relating to the RHI scandal.

Unlike his current party leader, these business groups have taken the time and effort and have used their highly talented, professional staff to read and analyse the draft plan in depth. They are no fools and certainly do not willingly want to be embroiled in divisive party political disputes. But such is the crucial nature of the Brexit plan, they feel obliged to speak out.

The DUP have made a huge mistake in prematurely rejecting May's Brexit deal. The use of the term 'border in the Irish Sea' is unnecessarily frightening, because there is no diminution of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as a result of this plan.

By now, the use of the fear factor by the DUP should be long past its sell-by date. On this occasion, businesspeople are not buying it.

Belfast Telegraph

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