Business body seeking 'urgent clarity' on Brexit from PM

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons yesterday
Gary McDonald Business Editor

THE first-ever Northern Ireland head of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has directly challenged Prime Minister Theresa May seeking "urgent clarity" on the government's Brexit objectives.

Francis Martin, a partner at BDO in Belfast, and BCC director-general Adam Marshall, issued an open letter to the PM ahead of her inner "war cabinet" of senior ministers meeting on Wednesday to chart a course through some of the most difficult issues in the Brexit process.

In their letter, the BCC's leaders urge the government to make key choices and deliver a clear statement of intent – so that businesses of all sizes and sectors can make decisions for the future.

They say: "In Chamber business communities all across the UK, there are a range of views on the depth and breadth of our future relationship with the EU.

"As a consequence, the BCC has refrained from entering into the noisy political debate on the shape of the final settlement in recent weeks. We have instead emphasised the need for answers to the many practical questions businesses now face. Our aim has always been to maximise, not constrain, the government's chances of success as ministers and the civil service work to secure the best possible deal for the UK.

"Yet businesses need those elected to govern our country to make choices — and to deliver a clear, unequivocal statement of intent.

"The perception amongst businesses on the ground, large and small alike, is one of continued division. Even amongst the many optimistic, future-oriented firms — those who see opportunity in change — patience is wearing thin. Directly-affected companies are poised to activate contingency plans. Many others, worryingly, have simply disengaged."

The letter added: "Clear UK negotiating objectives are crucial to both business and public confidence.

"While the BCC has campaigned strongly in favour of a status-quo transition period, to give businesses time to plan for change, this transition must lead to a clear endpoint. There is no room for continued ambiguity as companies make investment and hiring decisions. The government must set out its plans."

Mr Martin, who heralds from Moy in Co Tyrone, is the first Northern Ireland-born president in the BCC's 158-year history. He has more than 20 years' experience in corporate finance and business strategy development and is a former NI Chamber of Commerce president.

Meanwhile Mrs May has insisted she will be "robust" in Brexit talks as she dismissed "noises off" after Brussels set out plans that would allow it to sanction the UK during transition.

Brussels released papers showing it wants to put in place a method to rapidly curtail the UK's single market benefits if it breaches agreements on a transition deal.

Asked during Prime Minister's Questions if she would see off any "threats" from the European Union, Mrs May said: "We will be robust in our arguments.

"As I have said right from the very beginning we will hear noises off, we will hear all sorts of things being said about positions that are being taken.

"What matters is the positions we take in the negotiations as we sit down and negotiate the best deal. We've shown we can do that. We did it in December and we are going to do it again."

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