Boris Johnson will likely 'fold like a cheap suit' during Brexit negotiations, says DUP MLA

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford. Picture by Niall Carson/PA

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford has said he expects British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “fold like a cheap suit” over Brexit negotiations with the EU.

During a meeting of Stormont’s economy committee discussing preparedness for Brexit, Mr Stalford said he believes there will be a negotiated outcome.

“It’ll probably be on the EU’s terms if the Prime Minister’s conduct up to this point is anything to go on, he can huff and puff but generally folds like a cheap suit,” he said.

Negotiations between the UK and European Union on a post-Brexit trade deal resumed on Monday following technical discussions over the weekend.

Problematic issues including fishing rights, the “level playing field” aimed at preventing unfair competition in areas such as workers’ rights and state subsidies and the governance of any deal are yet to be resolved.

Department for the Economy's chief economist Shane Murphy said his team is anticipating a "very very difficult January".

Delivering a briefing to the committee, Mr Murphy said the evidence they have points to "pretty low levels of preparedness by business".

He said clarity is still not available for businesses as "key things are being negotiated in one forum or another".

He added that even in areas where there is agreement, systems are still being built to carry them out.

"We were probably already concerned about preparedness, and then Covid came along and made things immensely more difficult," he told the committee.

"For an awful lot of firms out there, Covid is today's problem and they can't get their heads above water.

"Businesses constantly express a lot of frustration about clarity and that's really in very short supply at the minute, frustration that things of this magnitude need clarity along with time to prepare and time to adjust.

"A lot of key things are still being negotiated in one form or another between the UK government and the EU, and obviously time is short. We're now measuring things in days.

"At that high level the picture is very concerning. Major changes are on the way in January.

"Speaking very candidly, as things stand, we're anticipating a very, very difficult January."

Mr Murphy's colleague Giulia Ni Dhulchaointigh said just 9% of businesses have a plan in place, which she described as "very, very worrying".

Another departmental official Victor Dukelow said only 6% of businesses have contingency plans in place to address data adequacy across borders. 80% say they have not undertaken any preparatory work on this.

He welcomed the announcement at the weekend that progress has been made on a trade deal with Canada, which he described as a "really significant development for Northern Ireland because we trade a large amount of goods into Canada".

But Mr Dukelow also voiced concern on the settled status scheme for EU citizens living in Northern Ireland, describing the "clock as ticking" for applications.

"We're seeking to encourage employers to promote the scheme to their workers and families, make sure they are aware of it and how they can engage with it," he said.

Economy Committee chair Caoimhe Archibald described the session as a "sobering briefing" and agreed figures around the level of preparedness are concerning.

Meanwhile, speaking today during Prime Minister's Questions in Westminster British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government would not be extending the Brexit transition period.

Alliance MP Stephen Farry (North Down) said: "The Northern Ireland business community is extremely concerned that it is now impossible to be ready to fully implement the protocol from January 1.

"Their top priority is to ask the EU for an adjustment or grace period. This request is based on respect for the protocol and is not about an extension to the transition period.

"Will the prime minister give his support to this ask?"

Mr Johnson replied: "Of course we're not going to extend the transition period but we want to make practical arrangements to help businesses in Northern Ireland and we've agreed, for instance, a one-year adjustment period so there is no disruption to the flow of medicines.

"And we've already launched a £200m trader support service to help agri-food businesses and others and that's going to... more details will be announced shortly."

Earlier this week, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he was hopeful that the outline of a Brexit deal can be reached by the end of the week.

He said at a briefing of EU prime ministers last week European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had provided one of the more “hopeful presentations made to date”.

Speaking to reporters from Dublin Port on Monday, the Taoiseach was upbeat about the prospects of a deal.

He said: “A deal is necessary, and a deal is in the best interest of the United Kingdom, of Ireland and of the European Union.

“The fact is that engagement has continued, and it’s fair to say the engagement has been of an intensive nature now for some weeks.

“President Ursula von der Leyen did say to the EU leaders last Thursday night that there are texts now on all areas.

“I would be hopeful that by the end of this week we could see the outline of a deal.

“That remains to be seen.

“It’s down to political will, both in the United Kingdom, I’m clear the political will is there in the European Union.

“One must remain hopeful that a deal can be arrived at.

“It’s very important that it happens.

“It’s important for jobs and for all of those who are in business, that they can look forward in terms of their futures.

“A deal makes far greater sense for jobs and for the respective economies of all involved.”

He added: “I do sense that both negotiating teams, they’ve made progress, that’s the point.

“I think the presentation made last week by the President of the Commission was probably one of the more hopeful presentations made to date.

“Therefore one has to remain hopeful that they can pull one off.”

Mr Martin was speaking from Dublin Port, which he visited on Monday to assess preparations for Brexit.

Earlier this week, the Taoiseach said Brexit would be “the most significant fundamental change in our economic narrative in over 50 years.”

Over 1,500 extra people have been hired to work in customs, with customs declarations set to increase from an average of 1.5 million per year to around 20 million per year.

Mr Martin admitted that the added burden on the customs system will have a negative impact on traffic congestion in Dublin.

He said: “That which ordinarily went through here seamlessly will not go through seamlessly now.

“The aim of all of our preparation is to make it as fast as we possibly can.”

He added: “We can deal with it.

“We’ve built up capacity very quickly and we’re continuing to work to increase capacity here at Dublin Port.

“But the world will change and it will not be as seamless as it once was.”

Mr Martin also raised concerns that Irish businesses, particularly smaller SMEs, were not prepared for the changes that are coming.

He ruled any possibility of a grace period for businesses after the UK leaves the European Union on January 1.

He said: “The bottom line is you need to get ready.

“That concern has been shared with me this morning in terms of preparation and readiness.

“There is still time for people to get ready.

“The deadline is January 1 because the UK will be outside of the customs union and outside of the single market.

“That’s the bottom line.

“It will be a third country in the context of the European Union.

“People just need to knuckle down now.

“If you work with the State agencies you will get a lot of assistance.”

Mr Martin also spoke of the need to rebuild trust between the UK and the EU after it officially leaves the European bloc.

“Once we get a deal agreed, I think that will allow for a degree of settling down, a building of trust.

“We owe it to the people we represent to do that,” he said.

Today, US President-elect Joe Biden stressed the importance of keeping the Irish border open following Brexit.

Speaking to reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday, he said: “We do not want a guarded border. We want to make sure – we’ve worked too long to get Ireland worked out, and I talked with the British prime minister, I talked with the Taoiseach, I talked with others, I talked to the French.

“The idea of having a border north and south once again being closed is just not right, we’ve just got to keep the border open.”

Mr Biden discussed Brexit with Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier in November during one of his first phone calls to other world leaders as president-elect, warning him Brexit must not jeopardise the Northern Ireland peace process.

Mr Biden previously touched upon the 1998 Good Friday agreement during his presidential campaign, tweeting in September: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit.

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