NI businesses 'remain' in favour of EU membership

The border with the Republic of Ireland is of particular concern to businesses in the north post-Brexit
Gareth McKeown

TWELVE months on from the landmark Brexit vote, businesses in Northern Ireland 'remain' in favour of European Union membership.

With negotiations under way ahead of the UK officially leaving the EU in two years' time, firms are concerned about the possible impact of a hard Brexit, with few seeing any tangible benefits in the wake of the 2016 vote.

And respondents from a selection of businesses in the fields of health, property, IT, manufacturing and food all respondents all told the Irish News that if given the vote again they would still choose to stay within the European Union.

Director of property consultants GVA NI Gavin Weir said he is concerned by the uncertainty created by Brexit.

"The property market relies on stability and the assessment of risk. It is virtually impossible to form a view on the future with so many unanswered questions. This results in a lack of transactions and a 'wait and see' approach which is not good for a market that relies on activity," he said.

Brendan Crealey, managing director of Industry Training Services in Portadown, echoed his views, but concedes that Brexit could have long-term benefits.

"My view from the start was business people would vote to remain and others would vote to leave. I do believe in the long run Great Britain will be better off out of Europe but it's the uncertainty in the medium term," he said.

Top of the concerns raised by the businesses surveyed is the border with the Republic of Ireland and what impact this will have on trade.

John McCann, managing director and founder of one of the north's largest food companies Willowbrook Foods, said EU border trade is an issue of "prime concern".

"The introduction of border restrictions and tariffs, for example, have the potential to impact on food service companies like ours that regularly transport fresh food in chilled lorries throughout Ireland," he said.

"This fresh produce, which is in high demand with customers across the UK and Republic, relies on brisk, fast-moving transport and any border delays could have an impact. Clarity on this important issue would provide the right conditions for our continued growth, as uncertainty is any business environment is deeply unhelpful.”

Although a 'remain' supporter, the chief executive of Belfast-based food-technology firm arc-net, Kieran Kelly, sees potential growth opportunities following last year's vote.

"Brexit presents us with the ability to increase authentication and traceability for local goods and products. UK produce will have an increased value on the open market as its perceived as high welfare and healthier produce. The export potential is much greater as we structure new trade agreements and increase product adoption. Protecting local produce and establishing community eco systems provide Northern Ireland and the UK with the ability to drive new economic growth."

None of the businesses surveyed said they were considering moving operations from Northern Ireland at present although the prospect of establishing a base in the Republic was discussed.

Kevin McNamee, director of Bangor-based manufacturer Denroy Plastics, one of the north's leading exporters, said it was "difficult to see any significant upside" from Brexit.

The company, which exports to 80 countries worldwide and could be heavily impact by new EU tariffs, has not ruled the possibility of leaving Northern Ireland in the event of a hard Brexit.

"This option does not currently feature within our risk assessment plan, however it could potentially be something that may need to be evaluated depending on negotiation outcomes."

Invest NI chief executive Alastair Hamilton said the impact of Brexit on the agency's clients was very much a "mixed bag", but highlighted the short-term growth of exports on the back of the weak sterling.

"I would not have forecast Northern Ireland exports would have grown by 12.5 per cent in the last 12 months. Now we need to be cautious and careful for the future, but that's a really good position for us, but clearly the full impact of the Brexit will not be known until the arrangements are sorted."

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