Speaking as the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) hosted its annual dinner in Belfast, chairman Brian Irwin described the draft withdrawal agreement as a positive development in the Brexit negotiations and said he hoped it would enable “more substantive talks around our future trading relationship with the EU”.
The dinner was attended by some of the most influential people in Northern Ireland’s largest employment sector, representing the meat, dairy and other major producers.
Mr Irwin, chair of the family-owned bakery business said there was no room for doubt on the alternative.
“We must be clear on the fact that a no-deal outcome would be disastrous for Northern Ireland, particularly for the agri-food sector.
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“We simply could not absorb increased customs, tariffs and regulatory costs on trade between Northern Ireland and the EU.”
Recent government analysis, he said, had arrived at the conclusion that the sector would bear the worst of the fallout from a no-deal scenario, with NI goods exports falling by up to £1.1bn annually compared to a backstop scenario.
“Whilst this agreement may not be perfect, and further clarification on certain aspects will be required, it is vastly preferable to a no-deal scenario and offers us an effective insurance policy in the interim period until a new trading relationship is agreed.
“A UK wide solution that avoids a hard border and allows Northern Irish firms frictionless access to markets in Britain, Republic of Ireland, and the European Union offers our members the best chance of surviving in a post-Brexit world,” Mr Irwin said.
“We will also be calling on our local politicians to show decisive leadership at this time and work together with the local business community to ensure that the interests of our economy and society take priority over party politics.
Earlier in the day, Tina McKenzie, NI policy chair of the small business group the FSB, said the draft agreement offered a basis for certainty for small businesses, and a means to avoid a hard border.
“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.”
Stating that the body was “acutely aware” of the political machinations around the agreement, Ms McKenzie said it was crucial to understand and acknowledge that without it the UK would 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,” she added.
“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.”