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Northern Ireland businesses would take backstop over no-deal Brexit ‘any day’

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
Seamus Leheny of Northern Ireland’s Freight Transport Association speaking to the committee. Pic: House of Commons

Northern Irish businesses would take a Northern Ireland-only backstop over a no-deal Brexit “any day,” the House of Commons’s Exiting the European Union Committee heard on Wednesday.

Steven Kelly, chief executive of industry body Manufacturing NI, told the committee that “if the choice was between no deal and the backstop, we would take the backstop absolutely.”

Similarly, Seamus Leheny, policy manager of Northern Ireland’s Freight Transport Association said that the businesses he represents would choose “the backstop over no deal any day.”

READ MORE: Brexit could hit the lifeblood of Northern Ireland’s economy

Noting that a third of the 4.6 million commercial vehicles that cross the Irish border were from the agri-food industry, Leheny said that up to 4,000 commercial vehicles “would have to stop for documentary ID checks” in a no-deal scenario, and that up to 50% of those could be forced to stop for physical inspection.

“The costs and the delays of that mean we would have to completely reinvent the supply chain really for the movement of these goods on the island of Ireland,” he warned.

This would also affect the UK, he said, as many agri-food goods from Northern Ireland are transported via Dublin to Hollyhead, and on to supermarkets and other businesses in the midlands and south of England.

“No deal is not an option for us,” he said.

Declan Billington, the vice-chair of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association, said that the agri-food industry had wanted the whole of the UK to remain in the European Union’s single market and customs union. While he said that he knew that this would not be “politically acceptable in some camps,” his association was seeking a solution that could be delivered on a UK-wide basis.

Prime minister Theresa May has been seeking a UK-wide backstop as a way of avoiding committing to a Northern Ireland-specific backstop. While the bloc is reported to be considering the possibility of a UK-wide backstop, it is still likely to insist on a legally operable Northern Ireland-specific backstop.

READ MORE: UK-wide customs union would still require Northern Ireland backstop

Aodhán Connolly, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said that, considering his organisation represented businesses that account for 70% of roll on, roll off freight traffic from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, any deal or backstop needed to have “0% tariffs, no new border frictions, and no new taxes.”

“If you could give me that, I’d be very happy,” he said.