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OPINION: Businesses baffled as Brexit uncertainty makes planning impossible

Businesses near the border - and even in Belfast city centre - say they are "exasperated" at the continued uncertainty around Brexit
Businesses near the border - and even in Belfast city centre - say they are "exasperated" at the continued uncertainty around Brexit Businesses near the border - and even in Belfast city centre - say they are "exasperated" at the continued uncertainty around Brexit

AFTER the latest shenanigans in Brussels and Belfast, businesses in the north - from the high street to the export sector, agri-food to the blue economy - are asking: "What the hell is going on?"

Firms are scratching their heads in bewilderment, not knowing how they'll prepare for events after March 2019.

Whether the border is hard or invisible, and whatever the outcome of talks around regulatory divergence, people movement, the single market or customs union, businesses admit to being utterly perplexed.

"We keep tabs on the discussions and trust things are moving in the right direction, but we're getting little reassurance on how things will work out," one food firm boss from close to the border in Armagh told The Irish News yesterday.

"Yet in just 16 months' time we're expected to wake up, open up and put up - yet we haven't a clue how it will affect us or our staff. It's exasperating."

His comments mirror the findings in the most recent InterTradeIreland business monitor. It quizzed 750 businesses with cross-border sales - and found that 700 of them had not made any plans to deal with Brexit.

But this isn't lethargy on their parts, just uncertainly.

More than half of that cohort said the uncertainty was making it simply impossible to plan, while more than a third admitted to being in a state of inertia, believing it won't impact on their businesses.

The other nine per cent claim they are "simply too busy dealing with the here and now" to even consider planning for the next two years.

The Irish border has long been identified as one of the biggest conundrums of Brexit, given the importance of an “invisible border” to the current peace settlement in Northern Ireland, as well as the 140 areas of close co-operation by cross-border authorities on everything from animal health to electricity.

But The Irish News is aware of at least a dozen prominent Northern Ireland businesses who are on the verge of decamping south if any agreement between the European Commission and UK government is likely to seriously disadvantage them.

Indeed one company which has been based in the city centre for more than a century (it asked us not to name it at this stage) said it deals in a commodity that might be hit with a tariff of more than £100 a tonne in the post-Brexit era.

"We export more than 500,000 tonnes a year, so you just have to do the sums to see how we'll be impact," a senior manager told me.

"Will we move across the border and take our staff and experience and rich history with us? Truthfully? Right now we haven't a clue what to do.

"Someone needs to come up with some solutions - and fast."