Posted on Thursday 15 November 2018 by John Mulgrew
The publication of a draft agreement between the Prime Minister and Brussels over the UK’s exit has caused a huge stir among the political institutions.
Since Wednesday evening, several cabinet members have resigned, opposed to what they see is a softening of Theresa May’s position on leaving the EU.
Essentially, for Northern Ireland’s business community in particular, it would remain part of the same customs territory as the rest of the UK and the entire area would be subject to "level playing field" commitments requiring the UK to follow EU rules in areas like animal welfare, environmental and workplace protections.
Northern Ireland would be in a deeper customs relationship with the EU than elsewhere in the UK, and more closely tied to EU market rules.
But what do Northern Ireland business groups think?
Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium
“While it will take some time to go through the 500 plus pages of the agreement, on the face of it this document provides some reassurance to our industry and the NI consumer.
“It provides solutions to customs, tariffs, an innovative solution on VAT, support for the Peace Process and a possible longer transition period. There certainly is some work to be done by both the Westminster Government and the EU on the checks and administration for goods coming in to Northern Ireland from GB.
“That will need to be light touch and be mitigated in further agreements, hopefully to an absolute bare minimum. However this agreement must pass through Parliament. We have always said the backstop is better than no deal.”
Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director-general
“After 20 months of debate, this agreement by Cabinet is progress. It moves the UK one step away from the nightmare precipice of no deal and the harm it would cause to communities across the country. Securing a transition period has long been firms’ top priority and every day that passes without one means lost investment and jobs, hitting the most vulnerable hardest.
“Time is now up. This deal is a compromise, including for business, but it offers that essential transitional period as a step back from the cliff-edge.
"More clarity on the final relationship is needed, and uncertainty remains high, but this is an important step forward.
“Transition and the backstop are not the intended permanent solutions for either side, but should pave the way for more work on the future deal. This must secure frictionless trade, ambitious access for our world-beating services, and a say over future rules.
“The UK has had many months of discussion and division. A long journey still lies ahead but now is the time for decisions. And the first decision is to avoid no deal.”
Retail NI chief executive, Glyn Roberts and Hospitality Ulster, Colin Neill
“This is a complex and detailed document which needs considerable analysis and further clarification from the UK Government.
“We will be consulting our respective memberships on this document and we will set out in greater detail our views when we have completed this process.
“Both our organisations have always sought a deal that ensures no delays in the supply chain, which promotes bridges rather than borders and above all else, ensures that Northern Ireland businesses have full and free access to the EU and UK single markets.
“Retail and Hospitality are two of Northern Ireland’s leading sectors of industry and our voice needs to be heard as this draft deal moves toward a vote in the House of Commons”
Michael Hall, managing partner, EY Northern Ireland
“Business will clearly welcome last night’s announcement in that there is now better clarity on the terms of a deal however many will also be reluctant to put contingency plans on hold until there is a stronger signal on whether this will hold politically in the UK and Europe.
“The backstop guarantee is a positive development for NI firms operating on an all-island basis, not least the restatement that both sides intend to work towards a free trade agreement longer term, which should not be overlooked.
“The scale of political uncertainty and the volatility which this creates can be seen in the significant currency fluctuations we have witnessed in the past 24 hours. Firms should not take this lightly and as such, factor these continued unknowns into their scenario planning.
“On the positive side, Northern Ireland businesses have continued to expand and employ more people in the period since the Brexit referendum, which we remain hopeful they will continue to do as we look towards a further period of uncertainty.
“By focusing on business fundamentals and contingency planning, firms will arm themselves so that they are ready to act when the road ahead becomes clearer.”
FSB NI policy chairman, Tina McKenzie
“Businesses have been calling for months for agreement to be reached between the UK and EU negotiators, so it can only be welcome that a text has been agreed and approved by the Cabinet.
“We are acutely aware of the political machinations which are ongoing, however it must be remembered that without an agreed withdrawal agreement, the UK will crash out in March 2019, without a transition period, nor agreement on citizens’ rights, nor any plan to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“While the exact nature of the backstop is being robustly debated, it must be remembered that the backstop will only take effect if the future relationship fails to deliver a frictionless border, after December 2020.
“We believe that the Withdrawal Agreement is a significant step back from the cliff edge which would result in a chaotic no deal Brexit that would be deeply damaging and dangerous for our small firms.
“We would encourage all political actors to keep this in mind as we move forward.”