Business

CBI chief warns new customs union needed to ensure prosperity in the north

The director general of the CBI has said that a functioning Northern Ireland Executive is urgently needed
Gareth McKeown

THE UK's most senior business leader has said a new customs union with the EU is the only way to keep the border open and allow Northern Ireland to prosper.

Speaking last night at the CBI Northern Ireland annual dinner in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, CBI director, Carolyn Fairbairn reflected on the deep concern over political uncertainty and Brexit shared by businesses across the north.

Highlighting the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement she urged politicians from Northern Ireland, Britain and the EU to make sure they do not "turn the clock back on peace and prosperity".

"In the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement and the border barriers were taken down, Northern Irish businesses have helped create over 160,000 extra jobs, unemployment is close to its lowest ever, Irish product exports have risen at an average of 6 per cent a year, year on year, for 20 years. And companies in Northern Ireland generate £70 billion a year in sales."

"Debate is not enough. Solutions must be delivered in three key areas. A hard border must be avoided – if there are alternatives to a customs union that deliver this, they must be explained in detail, now. A functioning Executive is urgently needed – to drive the development of a new economic plan and give Northern Ireland back its powerful voice on the international stage. And an immigration system must be laid out that enables businesses to attract the people that will power long-term prosperity."

Mrs Fairbairn believes a new customs union with the EU must be agreed in the Brexit negotiations.

“We at the CBI have said that a new customs union with the EU will help keep the border open and allow Northern Ireland to continue to prosper. Based on current evidence it is the only way to keep the border fully open," she told the audience.

"This is not a dogmatic view but a pragmatic one. Technology solutions may be ready one day but they are not yet. And trade deals around the world may one day compensate for lost EU trade. But that day is not yet here. So both sides should explore new customs union options, alongside ways to keep goods regulation closely aligned – the other essential ingredient of a wholly frictionless border."

Across the UK, the CBI speaks on behalf of 190,000 businesses. The CBI's corporate members together employ nearly 7 million people, about one third of private sector-employees.

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