Brexit deal: PM thanks NI business leaders for support

By Julian O'Neill
BBC News NI Business Correspondent

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Prime Minister Theresa May met NI business representatives at Number 10

Theresa May has thanked Northern Ireland business leaders and representatives of several major employers for supporting her Brexit deal.

In a statement afterwards, the prime minister said their voices were "incredibly important".

The DUP has been critical of business organisations for speaking in favour of Mrs May's deal.

The meeting was attended by about 50 people, representing businesses and the community and voluntary sector.

Business groups like the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in Northern Ireland back the withdrawal agreement, largely as it avoids a no-deal exit from the European Union.

The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) has gone further, by calling on the DUP to back the deal.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The meeting took place at 10 Downing Street on Thursday

"That's a transition period to avoid a cliff-edge for businesses and to provide the certainty you need to invest," she added.

"An outline relationship that creates a new free trade area with the EU, with no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions.

"And no hard border within the island of Ireland."

Earlier this week, the DUP MP Sammy Wilson said businesses are being used as "puppets" by the Northern Ireland Office.

A view which was echoed by the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) MLA Jim Allister, who accused businesses of "lining up to pay homage" to the prime minister.

'Positive engagement'

After the meeting, Chief Executive of Hospitality Ulster Colin Neill said: "It wasn't a case of a fan club turning up."

Mr Neill added that businesses at the meeting had come along to "find out where we are currently".

Image caption,
Stephen Kelly from Manufacturing NI and Claire Guinness from Warrenpoint Harbour were at the meeting

He reiterated that businesses still had some concerns about the deal, but said: "The prime minister reassured us in the room that the deal, as it stands, allows unfettered access between Northern Ireland and Great Britain."

Claire Guinness from Warrenpoint Harbour said it "was a very positive engagement" and "there was a spontaneous round of applause" for the prime minister.

Manufacturing NI's Stephen Kelly said delegation had met with other politicians besides the prime minister.

"We would hope the UK would back this deal because the alternative is no deal and that's a disaster for the Northern Ireland economy," he added.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
The DUP has said they hope to meet business organisations who have come out in support of the Brexit deal

Meanwhile, the DUP leader Arlene Foster said she wants to meet business organisations who have come out in support of the draft EU withdrawal agreement.

Arlene Foster said that she wants the meeting to be next week "if they want to meet me".

On Wednesday the DUP leader said she met a businessman who employs 300 people and has a turnover of £70m who is "absolutely outraged" by the Brexit deal.

She said there were many more like him who had "a clear view on the withdrawal agreement".

The BBC understands the DUP have asked the NI Chamber of Commerce to facilitate a meeting with business organisations on Monday.