Business

Northern Ireland businesses insist they want to stay in EU

Gail Bell

BUSINESSES in Northern Ireland insist they’re better off in Europe - and claim walking away from the world’s largest free single trade market would be “a massive leap into the unknown”.

Over the last three weeks the Irish News has informally polled dozens of companies, from sole traders and micro-firms through to several employing thousands of staff.

Many are still unable – or unwilling – to state their position ahead of the June referendum, principally because they’re not adequately au faux with the appropriate facts ahead of the June 23 referendum.

But of those who have expressed a definite opinion, more than 90 per cent say they don’t want to walk away.

Major business players like Moy Park, Norbrook, Beanchor, the Henderson Group, Lisney, Dunbia and Lava Group have all come out in favour of remaining at the heart of the EU.

A cross-section of companies, including those from the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors as well as energy firms and those in banking, housing and food, also want to stay in a reformed Europe.

So far, the only major local company which has publicly declared its desire to leave has been Wrightbus, although pub chain JD Wetherspoon, which runs more than a dozen of its 900-plus pubs in the north, is also rooted in the 'out' camp.

Significantly, a quarter of the 60-plus companies we surveyed are still undecided on the Europe question on June 23, when 1,243,369 voters in Northern Ireland will go to the polls.

Each cites a lack of information - echoing the views set out by the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland which called for “more clarity and less rhetoric” on the subject.

Ian Sheppard, chair of the IoD NI’s economic strategy committee, said not enough boards and senior business managers were discussing Brexit for the purposes of "risk assessment, exposure, identification, planning and preparation".

His views were echoed by several companies in our straw poll, including the World Travel Centre and Clubworld Travel, which both expressed concern over a dearth of digestible information.

Clubworld admitted it did not have "a good enough grasp" of all the implications of a Brexit, while World Travel Centre expressed concern that the "whole debate is currently based around opinion rather than well-founded facts".

Meanwhile Knock Travel said it made commercial sense to remain in Europe, but it would like to see more reforms made within the EU "to make it work better than it currently does."

Cautious supporters included Brendan McGurgan, managing director of CDE Global, who opted to "stick with the devil we know”.

"Markets hate uncertainty, and a Brexit would create uncertainty in the short-to-medium term which would undoubtedly have a negative impact on our European business," he said.

"Europe is one of our targeted, high growth potential regions and we don't really know if businesses would be shunned should the UK exit Europe.

"On a practical level, a Brexit has the potential to make doing business a little more difficult, time-consuming and expensive - and who knows what it would mean for additional border controls, travel costs and flight routes?

"But the risk it would create uncertainty would damage business confidence and market confidence.”

He added: “While all of these negatives can be associated with a decision to leave the EU, I haven't yet heard a strong case outlining any positive impact for Brexit."

KP Snacks (NI) believes Britain would be "better off staying in a reformed European Union" - although the firm said it also recognised that for many, it would be "an individual decision based on their own judgement".

Patrick Doody, sales and marketing manager at Henderson's Wholesale, part of the Mallusk-based Henderson Group, added: "The EU single market means we are able to offer our customers more choice and a wider range of products, at a more competitive price.

"This is good for our customers and good for our business and is why we support the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union."

Results of our unscientific survey are reflective of last week's CBI and BDO Northern Ireland Brexit debate for business leaders in Belfast, at which a "resounding" majority said they wanted the UK to remain in Europe.

CBI Northern Ireland director Nigel Smith said: "Our members tell us that having guaranteed access to a tariff-free market of 500 million people, and to more than 30 global trade deals covering 50 countries, are significant advantages that outweigh the frustrations."

An Oxford Economics EU Exit report, also released last week, concluded that, at best, a Brexit would have little impact on Northern Ireland - although a worst-case scenario pointed to a possible six per cent contraction of the local economy by 2030.

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