Business leaders in 'plea for clarity' ahead of Article 50 trigger
THE north's leading business organisations and universities have united in making a direct plea to the British government to consider "specific measures" to protect and sustain the region's growth as part of Brexit - and to seek clarity from the Prime Minister on how Northern Ireland will be represented in the Article 50 negotiations.
They also insists that Northern Ireland's "special circumstances" in sharing a border with the EU merit careful consideration during the two-year talks process which will follow from today's triggering of Article 50.
The signatories to the statement are Angela McGowan, director of CBI Northern Ireland; Linda Brown, director IoD Northern Ireland; Anne McGregor, chief executive NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry; Professor Patrick Johnston, president and vice-chancellor at Queen’s University; and Professor Paddy Nixon, vice-chancellor and president at Ulster University.
They describe leaving the EU as "undoubtedly the biggest political and economic challenge we have faced this century" and said it is incumbent on all civic and political representatives to work together to ensure the region continues to flourish in the post-Brexit world.
Their statement says: "Northern Ireland is unique in being the only region of the UK that has a land border with another EU member state. Over 32 per cent of our total exports go to the Republic, our most important export market, and its proximity has over the years led to ever increasing levels of economic integration – with chains of production, inputs and outputs stretching from Cork to Coleraine.
"Northern Ireland is therefore uniquely vulnerable to the potential changes the UK’s exit from the EU presents – particularly a UK-EU relationship governed by WTO tariffs and rules.
"For the region to succeed globally we need access to global talent – just as our talent plays a vital role in other successful economies – ensuring a supply of suitably skilled workers is vital. The Department for the Economy’s draft Industrial Strategy sets out an ambitious goal of creating a highly competitive, export driven and knowledge-based economy which has the momentum to generate 50,000 new jobs by 2021. However, the realistic prospects of being able to achieve this goal are reduced unless the final UK/EU deal takes into account Northern Ireland’s special circumstances.
"The Northern Ireland economy is structurally very different to that of the UK due to the legacy of the troubles. Historical factors have resulted in a regional economy that is marked by its over-dependence on public sector spending and an under-performing private sector dominated by small and medium sized businesses.
"Our economically vital agri-food sector is heavily reliant on EU funding and barrier-free access to the Republic and the rest of the European Union. Some 25 per cent of Northern Irish milk and 36 per cent of its lamb is processed at plants located in the Republic. Profit margins in the sector remain low, and the sector is ill placed to accommodate food tariffs ranging from 7 per cent to 65 per cent in the event the future EU-UK relationship is governed by WTO rules."
They added: "Securing a sustainable higher education system is vitally important as our young people are our future and we must nurture their talent so that our students can maximise their potential as global citizens. Investment in research and development by our local businesses has never been higher. Our universities enjoy increasing success in attracting significant EU-funded research and in recruiting world-leading international staff and students from the EU. It essential our businesses and universities continue to have access to these funding opportunities so we can continue to attract world leading talent to live and work here."
The statement says that keeping barriers to the flow of labour, goods, energy and services across the island of Ireland as low as possible is both economically and socially essential.
"Customs or security checks at the border would be more than a barrier to trade, they would represent an unwelcome return to the past. We must always remember that peace and prosperity go hand in hand, and as a first step, we need the return of a devolved power sharing Executive.
"Northern Ireland needs a strong and cohesive political voice in London, Dublin and Brussels to ensure our society and economy and the deepening foundations of our peace are not inadvertently damaged when the UK withdraws from the EU.