Simon Hamilton at odds with former DUP colleagues over support for withdrawal agreement
AN EX-DUP minister believes the withdrawal agreement consistently rejected by his former party colleagues is preferable to crashing out of the EU.
Simon Hamilton, who quit as an MLA and DUP member in June to take-up the role of chief executive with business group Belfast Chamber, believes a no-deal Brexit would result in "untold damage" to the Northern Ireland economy.
The former member of the Stormont executive, who is at the centre of a continuing criminal investigation into how he leaked sensitive government information to the media at the height of public outcry over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, said businesses needed to know how they would be affected by Brexit.
He said 78 per cent of Belfast Chamber members had supported Theresa May's withdrawal agreement, including the UK-wide backstop, which was rejected three times by MPs.
"I'm not saying that it was perfect or ideal, but at that time it gave some certainty about what was happening and also time to prepare for it – the situation around Brexit changes from day to day and hour to hour," the former Strangford MLA said.
"I've asked members their views and taken those views on board. Without getting into the specifics of the responses to the survey, there is clear concern about a no-deal and its impact – there is uncertainty generally because we don't know how no-deal is going to play out."
Mr Hamilton, who refuses to confirm the widely-held suspicion that in 2016 he voted to remain in the EU, said a no-deal in the immediate future looked unlikely but that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could potentially put such an option to MPs in the future.
"There are all sorts of concerns that down the line, maybe in three months, there is another risk of another cliff-edge," he said.
He told the Belfast Telegraph that if Brexit was going to happen it needed to be "as orderly as possible".
"(It needs to) give people the opportunity to prepare and to know what is going to be in place. In that sense, a no-deal ought to be avoided at all costs – there is such uncertainty about what the impact will be," he said.
"There are huge costs for business to deal with and it isn't just the financial cost. What does it mean for hiring staff, retaining staff, accessing finance and getting future investment?"
The former DUP minister was non-committal on speculation around the possibility of a deal involving a Northern Ireland-only backstop, saying it was "hard to comment because we don't know what that may look like".