Business

Forget about ‘Project Fear' and focus on 'Project Here'

Nissan is to scrap plans to build the new X-Trail model at its Sunderland plant and move production to Japan, which it blamed on the uncertainly caused by Brexit

KEVIN Kingston is the chief executive of Danske Bank and a former president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. He's a respected businessman who chooses his words carefully and is not given to hyperbole.

Last week he stated bluntly that a no-deal Brexit would be “the biggest risk to the Northern Ireland economy for a generation.” Kevin explicitly stated that some businesses will not survive a ‘no deal' outcome and that tough decisions will be taken around the numbers employed. That can only mean job losses, here, in Northern Ireland, among the businesses that employ your neighbours, your friends, your family members.

Some people call this Project Fear.

In the same week the body charged with attracting investment to Northern Ireland and promoting economic development in the region entered the Brexit debate in a way in which it has studiously avoided up to this point.

Invest NI has written to all of the political parties in the north to ask that “every possible step is taken to avoid the consequences of a no-deal scenario” in the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

Be in no doubt that this step will not have been taken lightly. Invest NI is chaired by Mark Ennis, one of the most respected and high profile businessmen we have. He said that the board of Invest NI is “deeply concerned” that with less than 60 days to the UK's departure from the EU many small- to medium-sized businesses in the north have not yet begun to plan for a no-deal scenario.

“The board has written to the leaders of Northern Ireland's main political parties to encourage them to work collectively to ensure that the particular issues faced by our businesses are well understood, considered, and addressed in the ongoing negotiations and that every possible step is taken to avoid the consequences which a no deal scenario would have on the Northern Ireland business base.”

This is a direct, stark and explicit warning of the dire consequences of a no deal crash out.

Some people will call it Project Fear.

The business community in Northern Ireland found its voice in the midst of the post referendum UK government meltdown. All of the main business representative bodies have declared support for the backstop deal produced by Theresa May but rejected by the DUP and the hard right brigade which dictates policy within the government at the moment.

These organisations represent the views of businesses that employ hundreds of thousands of people locally. When they highlight the danger of a no deal exit, and when they say that the backstop arrangement could actually work to our economic advantage, they should be heeded and not insulted or ignored.

In fact there is not one credible business person or organisation who has embraced the idea of a no deal outcome for Northern Ireland. Of course in GB there are outliers who continue to defy rational argument and economic facts and declare their support for a no deal crash out. But here we don't even have a Digby Jones or a Tim Martin type character to make the business case for a no deal, no matter how unhinged that case may be.

Again, some political parties dismiss the local business representatives as being agents of Project Fear.

Project Fear hit home with cold reality in Sunderland this week when Nissan reversed an earlier commitment to manufacture the new X-Trail in the city and instead will make the new vehicle in Japan. The decision was directly attributed to the uncertainly caused by Brexit. Nissan employs almost 7,000 staff in Sunderland and this news does not directly affect existing jobs in the area, which voted to leave the EU, but it won't inspire much confidence in the long term future of the plant either.

Brexit is the place where politics meets business and the economy and so far the outcomes are not good. In Northern Ireland, the potential impact of a no deal outcome are frankly disastrous.

'Project Fear' is a catchphrase used to deflect legitimate criticism and predictions about where the economy is heading under Brexit. Political leaders here have a responsibility to act in the interests of all who live and work here, and who rely on the investment decisions made by businesses who are worried about what lies beyond March 29.

It is in all likelihood a one-off parliamentary quirk that means that one party from Northern Ireland has so much sway over UK government policy. To date the DUP has decided to ignore the views of the business organisations on the question of the Theresa May deal versus ‘no deal.' But time is running out for those who claim there is a viable, achievable alternative.

Arguments around what might or might not happen in Northern Ireland post Brexit come into sharp focus when we see what investment decisions are already being taken elsewhere in the UK.

Forget about Project Fear - it's time for all politicians to concentrate on 'Project Here'.

:: Brendan Mulgrew (brendan.mulgrew@mwadvocate.com) is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter @brendanbelfast

:: Next week: Claire Aiken

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