NI ‘should lure Irish firms seeking UK access after Brexit’
As Theresa May holds talks with Taoiseach in Dublin, lobby group calls for new strategy
NORTHERN Ireland should focus on attracting firms from the Republic to set up here, as part of a strategy to offset the impact of Brexit on EU trade, a manufacturing lobby group has said.
Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of Manufacturing NI, spoke after Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that helping Prime Minister Theresa May to agree a deal to keep UK-EU trade as close as possible would be an “absolute priority” for Ireland ahead of Brexit negotiations.
The Taoiseach (below) held talks with Mrs May in Dublin yesterday, following earlier meetings between the Prime Minister and the leaders of the devolved nations in Cardiff — including DUP leader and former First Minister Arlene Foster, and Sinn Fein Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’neill.
Mr Kelly said Northern Ireland needed a stronger voice in Brexit negotiations.
“We need to be speaking with one voice in Brexit on what has to be done. Both Wales and Scotland have produced their papers on Brexit but there is no agreed position for Northern Ireland.”
And he said one option could be for Northern Ireland to encourage firms in the Republic to set up here. “That could be part of a hedging strategy by firms so that they can ensure their access to the UK market even after Brexit.
“Yes, we try and attract firms from Silicon Valley in California, but what about setting up clusters of Irish firms to effectively build Liffey Valley or Shannon Valley?
“We do want to be good neighbours and we want to make sure we work to try and get a good deal, but it does seem that business is making decisions quicker than government.” He said the strategy would be the equivalent of a Northern Ireland firm setting up in the Republic to ensure continued access to the EU — a move taken last week by pharmaceutical firm Almac,
which announced it was opening up an office in Dundalk. Setting out her strategy earlier this month, Mrs May strongly hinted that Britain could leave the European customs union (CU), stating she wanted “frictionless” cross-border trade, but had an “open mind” on whether it should be done through associate membership or a new agreement.
Speaking after talks with the PM in Dublin, Mr Kenny echoed her language, suggesting he would support the strategy during divorce talks.
“Our two governments are agreed that a close and friction-free economic and trading relationship between the Untied Kingdom and the European Union, including Ireland, is in our very best interests,” he told a press conference.
Meanwhile, US investment advisor Ronnie Foreman has said that Brexit, political instability at home and the presidency of Donald Trump have conspired to create the “biggest period of uncertainty” for business in Northern Ireland in decades.
Mr Foreman, who has helped Northern Ireland firms into American markets, said companies in the province should increasingly “look west” in the post-brexit world.
Addressing a seminar on business development hosted by law firm Cleaver Fulton Rankin, he said: “The process for leaving, the so-called Brexit, raises more questions than it provides answers.
“The timescale for leaving, still uncertain, and the great questions of what it will mean to all of us as individuals and to our various business interests, have yet to be clarified.
“Again and again, we see speculation regarding these great unknowns and, when you add the other major issues including the changes in government in USA and the collapse of our own local Assembly, then we are in a virtual sea of unanswered questions.
“The fact of the matter is that however much we want answers, we need to wait until these matters unfold.
“Meanwhile we face a future which is largely unknown and uncertain.”
John Mcgrane, chief executive of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, welcomed yesterday’s discussions between the Prime Minister and Taoiseach.
He said he believed Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech earlier this month, in which she vowed to take the UK out of the single market and the customs union, had jolted many firms on both sides of the border from a “state of denial” over Brexit. He added however: “The Prime Minister’s threat to walk away in the event of a ‘ bad deal’ with the EU would be nothing short of calamitous for Northern Ireland.”
But NI-NL, a body which encourages Northern Ireland firms to trade with the Netherlands and vice versa, said both regions were fully prepared to maintain trading relationships following Brexit. Gerard Wilson, owner of mouldings company SAM in Antrim, added that his company would do all in its power to continue its substantial trade with the Netherlands.
“It is clear that there will be uncertainty which could last several years, and the result of negotiations will be out of our control, so we need to focus and play with the cards that we have been currently dealt,” he said.