Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Business won't find certainty in our politics

By Suzanne Breen

New Year statements from business leaders are usually anodyne affairs that don't make political news, but we're living in extraordinary times.

The 2019 message from the just-appointed president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce conveys the business community's frustration at the current Brexit chaos.

John Healy represents 1,200 businesses which employ more than 100,000 people. He says those companies are battling to meet the challenges that almost two years of no government at Stormont and "the ominous threat of Brexit" bring.

They're entering 2019 unable to plan ahead and are in the dark as to what trading conditions they will face.

A no-deal Brexit would be a potential nightmare and Mr Healy is urging "parliamentarians" to redouble their efforts to ensure we don't face it by default.

In terms of our local ones, he's wasting his time. No matter how much Sinn Fein is berated over its abstentionist policy, its seven MPs won't be taking their seats for the foreseeable future. The DUP 10 are implacably opposed to Theresa May's deal as it stands, and aren't bluffing when they say that tinkering with the document won't cut it and only fundamental legal text changes will suffice.

The parties which are genuinely most outraged about the current situation - the SDLP and Alliance - are totally powerless and no amount of wishful thinking will change that.

Were Arlene Foster's party out on a limb in rejecting the prime minister's deal, business leaders' voices would be more influential. But the UUP and the TUV share the DUP's opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement.

The UUP is calling for an extension of Article 50 while Jim Allister argues that a no-deal scenario wouldn't be disastrous, with £39bn in the UK's back pocket and the ability to move new trade deals. Some DUP MPs, such as Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell, might share that viewpoint; others are more cautious.

Business leaders don't necessarily agree with Mrs May on every detail but what they understandably want is as much certainty as possible about the immediate future. Yet, rightly or wrongly, unionists see the backstop as a threat to Northern Ireland's constitutional integrity. They won't be changing their minds anytime soon.

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