Brexit talks 'led by clowns and fools' CBI lunch hears

CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn pictured at the organisation's Northern Ireland annual lunch in Titanic Belfast with (from left) Stuart Carson (sales & marketing director at Rainbow Communications), Des Moore (head of First Trust Bank) and Martin Wolf (chief economics commentator at the Financial Times). Photo: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

THE UK's Brexit team is being led by a team of "clowns, fools and the economically illiterate” and negotiations to divorce from Europe have been so far “a disaster”, a Belfast business audience heard yesterday.

Influential economist Martin Wolf, associate editor and chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, speaking at the CBI's Northern Ireland lunch in Titanic Belfast, also suggested that the economy will be "two to four per cent worse off" until 2030.

But CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn insisted that despite the seeming political deadlock around the exit from the EU, businesses in Northern Ireland "must not be not to be thrown off course by Brexit" and should keep focussed promoting innovation and entrepreneurialism.

More than 400 people attended the CBI annual lunch, sponsored by First Trust Bank and Rainbow Communications and compered by broadcaster and journalist Declan Curry.

Among the political representatives in the room were Sinn Fein's northern leader Michelle O'Neill, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance's Stephen Farry

They heard Ms Fairbairn call on all parties to work towards getting the Stormont Executive back up and running as soon as possible and to make "swift and substantive progress" in EU negotiations.

Addressing a range of Brexit issues critical to the Northern Irish business community, she said: “No-one wants a return to the past, and no-one wants a hard border.

"With over three billion pounds of goods and services exported from Northern Ireland to the Republic each year, the importance of keeping an open, frictionless border between cannot be overstated.

"It's also fundamental that the £13 billion worth of sales from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK are allowed to flow freely. That means no barriers and no delays.

“For the people of Northern Ireland, borders of any description - east-west or north-south - are simply not an option.”

On Brexit transition arrangements, which will provide additional breathing room for dialogue and avoiding the cliff edge scenario which would cause so much uncertainty for businesses, Ms Fairbairn said the CBI would "do all we can" to hold the government to its pledges made in Florence.

Referring to the rights of EU citizens, she said: "Since the referendum the CBI called for a guarantee for EU citizens working in the UK.

"Yet over the past 500 days and counting, their situation has slowly moved from regrettable, to disgraceful, to downright intolerable."

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