Posted on Thursday 28 February 2019 by Ulster Business

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A cold and rainy Belfast morning conveys roughly the right tone for the current state of affairs surrounding the disparity and apparent chaos around what will happen to the UK on March 29.

But, I meet my interviewee Brian Murphy – managing partner at accountancy and business advisory firm BDO NI – for a catch-up on all things.

The breakfast marks a return to Cafe Parisien as a backdrop for this casual coffee over a scone and croissant. There’s also the usual variety of caffeinated beverages – including me mixing things up with an Americano and a flat white – while Brian opts for the chilled fizz of a diet Pepsi.

Kicking things off, Brian has a positive outlook on how Northern Ireland companies are faring, despite the headlines.

Referring to the latest quarterly economic survey from the NI Chamber and BDO, Brian says the majority of companies surveyed say they are expecting to see growth in the coming 12 months.

“Those issues (Brexit and devolution) have being going on for some time now. The encouraging thing is that beneath that, businesses in Northern Ireland have been getting on with it,” he says.

“Despite the difficult trading conditions, and everything that goes with that, they have been focusing on their businesses and getting on with that. When you look at some of the stats, the majority of businesses are confident going forward, that they will grow in the coming year.”

The survey did also point to something of a dichotomy – with companies having a considerably less positive view of the Northern Ireland economy’s overall economic prospects.

“We are a conservative bunch. If you ask a business owner in Northern Ireland, how their business is doing, almost without exception they will say ‘not too bad’. If you get behind that, they are normally doing OK… it’s not in our nature to extrapolate.

“When we look at the results, there are challenges but my mindset is the that the challenges are there to be addressed. We are starting with a strong base, where businesses are, the majority, have an optimism, and have a success behind them.”

Brexit, he says, is largely out of our control. But he’s keen to see decisions being made at Stormont, despite the lack of an Executive.

However, he’s worried that some may see the Brexit deadline as the end to the uncertainty and difficulties experienced by businesses and all shapes and sizes here.

“I fear people think this is going to go away on March 29 – it only starts,” he says.

“When we are sitting down with our clients, we are challenging them that the uncertainty is going to continue for the two-year transition period, or longer.

“Can we afford, in general, to sit back and wait? Looking at our closest competitor in the Republic of Ireland, in the last two years they have secured a minimum of 4,000 new inward investment jobs – that’s as a direct result of Brexit.

“What have we done? We’ve done nothing. We’ve probably suffered. Could some of that 4,000 have come to us? If it wasn’t for Brexit, absolutely. Our cost proposition and quality of life – cost of living and education – trumps what they have in Dublin.

“The realisation is starting to dawn. We have a really good team of people working for our global network, based in Belfast. The feedback we have been getting from the global network is so positive, about them.

“If there was no deal, it will be difficult in the short-term, but it will evolve into a business compatible level. We don’t need to suffer that – we need to get a deal. I don’t think we will crash out, and I think it will be extended to find a level.”

But while he’s positive that businesses will continue to work through the Brexit process, he says some remain terrified over the potential impact of a lack of key resources, such as a fuel or medicine, in the short-term.

On the upside, there’s likely to be a short-term boost for exporters – with continued devaluation in sterling, while property and investment in the UK will be more attractive for those working in US dollars and other currencies.

And with that, it’s back into the mizzling rain before heading to the Ulster Business headquarters for additional caffeine to help fuel the rest of the day.

Scone of the day £4.00

Croissant £2.50

Americano £3.00

Flat white £3.20

Pepsi x2 £4.90

Total: £17.60

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