Aodhán Connolly, Director at Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, believes that uncertainty around Brexit may have inadvertently served as a catalyst in ensuring civic and business society in Northern Ireland has a greater say in creating a better place to work, live, visit and invest.
At the time of writing, the Prime Minister has pulled the meaningful vote on the proposed withdrawal agreement. Businesses and households are now in a stagnant limbo while the Damoclean sword of a no deal Brexit hangs over us. Investment has stalled and grave concerns are palpable in every conversation I have with retailers from local to multinational. So, are we right to be concerned? Definitely. And what we should be most concerned about is the myths and misperceptions bandied about in the media.
Some are regularly saying in the media that we won’t need to enforce border checks or any controls and the World Trade Organisation has even said it’s UK Government prerogative. But if we don’t check Republic of Ireland goods entering Northern Ireland then we cannot discriminate against any other WTO members. It would be open to all. That would mean tariff and regulatory free access for goods from across the world, undoubtedly destroying indigenous manufacturing and agri-food industries. It would also mean a staggering disregard for smuggling and even health concerns in the food chain. The simple fact is both the EU and the UK will need to protect their markets.
There are voices saying that we should not be worried about our trade with Ireland or even with the EU but concern ourselves with our biggest trading partner, Great Britain. Quite simply, Northern Ireland’s businesses do not have the luxury of a choice of either/or. Northern Ireland may sell £14 billion worth of goods to Great Britain every year, but these ‘Made in NI’ products comprise parts from across Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland due to all-island supply chains. This is backed up by fact that 70 per cent of the 2.4 million trucks each year entering Northern Ireland from Ireland are carrying ingredients and components. We have hugely complex supply chains, where agri-food and industrial ingredients traverse the borders many times before they become the finished product. These supply chains were not built in the 20 years since the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, they were built during 40 years of membership of the EU.
So, if we have tariffs and/or regulatory controls on cross border goods then we make those goods we sell to Great Britain less competitive in price and even risk their existence. As Seamus Leheny from the Freight Transport Association often states: “Politics in Northern Ireland hasn’t changed much in 20 years, but business has.” And that brings us to the only ray of sunshine in the Brexit gloom.
The best thing to come out of the Brexit process is that there is a new collegiate atmosphere among business groups. If you would have told me even two years ago that I would be standing shoulder to shoulder with farmers, processors, manufacturers, freight and many others, I would have thought it impossible. But here we are, united by a common wish to protect Northern Ireland’s industry and households from the disaster that would be a no deal Brexit.
We have rarely seen business come out in such strength and with such unity, in fact it may be the first time in a generation we have seen such levels of coordination. At other times businesses who have put their head above the parapet have seen it pushed down again in short order.
I hope that we have crossed the Rubicon and now we will see civic and business society having a greater say in how we make Northern Ireland a better place to work, live, visit and invest.