BELFAST (Reuters) - Britain’s Northern Ireland minister on Monday called on businesses in the province to voice support for the draft EU divorce deal which is being fiercely resisted by the Northern Irish party that props up the UK government.
As Prime Minister Theresa May courted business leaders in London, her representative in Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, met with companies in Belfast for the second time in five days to talk up a deal she said handed them a vital insurance policy.
She also warned fellow members of parliament that rejecting the withdrawal deal would lead to a “potentially very chaotic departure” from the EU that World Trade Organisation rules made clear would require border checks on the island of Ireland.
The disputed Northern Ireland provision in the deal, which could align the province more closely with the EU than the rest of the United Kingdom would be, was agreed by negotiators to keep the border between Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland open.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs prop up May’s minority government in London, has said it cannot support the deal in its current form, seeing it as a threat to the constitutional integrity of the UK.
“Debate inside and outside of Parliament will rightly be robust and I would encourage you and your members to make sure that your voice is heard throughout this process, so that the crucial benefits for businesses across Northern Ireland are made clear,” Bradley told around 70 business owners in a speech.
The event was organised by four business groups that lined up to back the deal on Friday, following others in the province including the Ulster Farmers Union, a group traditionally close to the pro-British unionists troubled by the agreement.
The DUP responded by saying that business groups had not read the text in full.
Business owners that spoke at the event said that while the deal was not perfect, companies across the province of 1.8 million people could not cope if Britain left the bloc next March without an exit deal.
“I just think it’s going to be a disaster if they arrive at no deal, jobs will go. If our clients, who we help travel all around the world, can’t trade, we can’t trade and it’s just a snowball effect” said Edel Doherty whose travel agency, Beyond Business Travel, employs 20 people in Belfast.
Introducing such uncertainty to an economy still recovering from three decades of sectarian bloodshed that only ended in 1998 would be an even bigger blow, Tina McKenzie, policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said.
“I’m really worried about this place. This place has been through 40 years of conflict, it can’t afford to have any more kicks in the teeth, especially to our economy which is just about getting off its knees,” said McKenzie, who is chief executive of Ireland’s Grafton Recruitment group.
“I would implore them (politicians) to think long and hard, and please don’t put us in a situation where we get to a no deal Brexit because really, genuinely we can’t go there.”
(The story corrects to make clear company name is Beyond Business Travel)
Writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Robin Pomeroy