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Have decades of free and frictionless trade been abandoned?

A border crossing point between Donegal and Derry. Photo: Margaret McLaughlin
Gary McDonald Business Editor

THE fog of Brexit may finally be starting to lift, providing a more certain path for businesses to plan and invest again.

And after the events of yesterday some will suggest the DUP has been thrown under a bus ("and reversed back over again just to be sure" as one of the twitterati quipped) and is seeing its political high watermark now receding.

Following a turbocharged series of negotiations over recent days, this is a deal which at least has Boris Johnson, Jean-Claude Juncker and even Jacob Rees-Mogg all singing from the same hymn sheet, and a potentially chaotic no deal exit which had instilled fear in businesses has seemingly been averted.

The controversial backstop is gone, but a de facto Irish Sea border will now exist.

And while it protects the island from a "hard" border, decades of free and frictionless trade with what is a significant market for the north has potentially been abandoned - and that isn't sitting well with corporate Northern Ireland.

Business organisations wholly embraced the original but ultimately ill-fated (and catastrophically defeated) Theresa May paper, claiming Northern Ireland could become some sort of "Singapore-lite" in being able to have unfettered trading arrangements with the Republic, wider EU and the world.

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But they aren't quite as enthusiastic about this compromise.

They always believed Northern Ireland was Brexit's final frontier, with a blind eye being turned to the fate of the region and its peace process, politics and economic stability. Some felt the region was treated with a terrifying and almost arrogant recklessness.

And while things finally appear to have tip-toed forward, businesses are guarded about the deal being ratified, fully aware there is a knife-edge showdown in the Commons on Saturday.

Businesses have lived in a Brexit hiatus for more than three years, and the one thing they struggle with is uncertainty.

So following yesterday's developments, they'll want to analyse precisely what the terms of the agreement would mean for all aspects of their operations, and will reserve judgment until they have had time to digest the detail and implications for trade, growth, export and private sector employment.

For now legal text of the divorce is being worked through, and it will still need the approval of both the UK and European parliaments.

The DUP, of course, has said it would be "unable" to back the proposals in the Commons because it will undermine the integrity of north and the UK.

Yet in today's bewildering political landscape, this a deal which might finally be accepted - albeit begrudgingly.

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