Business

Gambling with people's livelihoods is reckless and irresponsible

Just six per cent of manufacturers in Northern Ireland believe there could be a positive future outside of the EU according to a recent regional survey
Stephen Kelly

AN engineering firm whose Irish customers have asked that their products are moved south before St Patrick's Day for fear of getting stranded in the north and a food firm who, to protect the other 75 per cent of their workforce, will have to put a quarter of their staff on protective notice as their Irish supermarket customer won't pass on a 40 per cent tariff cost to their shoppers . . . .

These are just two of the latest Brexit worries passed on from manufacturers alarmed by events in Westminster last Tuesday.

While Parliament clears its chest and tries to make up its mind, businesses are facing real life challenges and making decisions. They are fighting to maintain competitiveness and customers so they can pay wages this Friday and every Friday up to and after March 29, the day the UK wishes to Brexit.

Prime Minister Theresa May is now moving from a “me” to a “we” approach and Parliament is trying to find some consensus by narrowing down its options.

But we are now only 66 days until Brexit and the prospect of “no deal” risks the very existence of some firms. So, businesses are firming up plans and with time is running out, these plans will have to be activated.

But we have asked them to wait for a few days to see what happens next. Parliament must work through its issues and make it clear where they are taking us.

Commentators say there is no majority in Parliament for no deal, but there is no easy political route to take no deal off the table. It will require a definitive, positive action to remove this threat.

Our business community, farming representatives and community and voluntary sectors agree that the withdrawal agreement is workable and much better than no deal. While not perfect, its approval would secure the critical transition period, protect jobs and allow everyone to move to the more positive future relationship negotiations and agreement with the EU.

The withdrawal agreement allows businesses here the necessary assurance that there won't be tariffs, quotas, checks nor expensive rules of origin (how customs authorities classify where an export has come from in international trade) avoiding an estimated £300 million of additional costs which would render our sector uncompetitive. It would allow our manufactured products market access, easy routes to achieve critical market approvals and a competitive advantage over firms in GB.

A backstop is wanted and is required. The direction, certainty and insurance committed to our businesses and the community by the UK and the EU must be maintained in whatever Parliament decides to do next.

A year ago, 21 per cent of manufacturers felt there could be a positive future outside of the EU. Our surveying of manufacturers alongside Tughans shows that this has now slumped to just 6 per cent.

Efforts to convince our smart and sophisticated manufacturers that things will be fine or prosperous outside the EU have failed. Why? Because their own knowledge and experience of trading internationally is worth more than any words or reassurance. They don't believe the promises.

If Parliament still wants to Brexit, then only approving the withdrawal agreement and political declaration removes no deal as an option. Gambling with the jobs and livelihood of workers, farmers and businesses with is reckless and irresponsible. It's time that threat was removed.

:: Stephen Kelly ( stephenkelly@manufacturingni.org) is chief executive of Manufacturing NI. Follow the organisation on Twitter at @ManufacturingNI

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