Brexit: NI businesses vent their frustrations over the deadlock

By Colm Kelpie

Media caption,
'Not listening to the voices of business'

Shay Mullan leans over a small wooden bucket, spoons mozzarella and tomato drizzled in pesto into a take-away cup, and hands it to me.

On the centre of his apron, an inscription reads: "Always Market Fresh".

It is a promise that Mr Mullan takes pride in.

But thanks to the UK's impending EU departure, it's now a potential headache.

His business, Tom & Ollie, has a stand in Belfast's St George's Market filled with rows and rows of olives, pesto, cheeses, and other mouth-watering delights.

On the morning BBC News NI visited, there was a weariness about Mr Mullan - a Brexit weariness.

"These politicians are not listening to the voices of the small businesses," he says.

"We need answers. We need to know where we're going."

Image caption,
"To a certain level, we've actually tried to bring in and stockpile ingredients," says Tom & Ollie owner, Shay Mullan

Tom & Ollie's promise that its produce is always market fresh is at the core of the business, so talk of borders, checks and delays sparks concern.

The firm, which has a production facility in Broughshane, County Antrim, and sells in markets across Northern Ireland, imports fresh ingredients from all over Europe and further afield.

Olives are brought from Greece, sun-dried tomatoes from Turkey, chorizo and charcuterie from Spain and other produce from Morocco.

They travel to Northern Ireland in some cases via Britain, so the prospect of checks on some goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as envisaged under the backstop proposal in Theresa May's withdrawal agreement, is a worry, Mr Mullan says.

"It's going to impact our produce massively. We need the produce to make the products to supply to our end user, so if there's going to be checks on those, who knows, it's a terrible scenario."

But so too, he adds, is a hard border on the island.

The ingredients Mr Mullan imports are used to make products which are then transported, in 90% of cases, from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland.

He has a contract with a local haulage company and its trucks crisscross the border twice a week, bringing Tom & Ollie's fresh produce to customers in Dublin and Newcastle West in County Limerick.

"We've actually tried to bring in and stockpile ingredients at more of a level than we normally would," Mr Mullan says.

"But we make fresh foods, and take fresh basil, chick peas and make paste and recipes, so it's very hard to have a contingency plan."

Under current law the UK will exit the EU on 29 March, whether or not a deal has been struck.

On Tuesday, MPs will vote on the way forward on Brexit, after rejecting Theresa May's initial plan by a record-breaking 230 votes.

The plan was aimed at bringing about an orderly EU departure, and setting up a 21-month transition period to negotiate a free trade deal.

It also included a backstop arrangement to keep an open border on the island, which would mean Northern Ireland would have to stay aligned to some rules of the EU single market.

That means that some goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked to see if they meet EU rules.

Mrs May is hoping to tweak the deal to address backstop concerns among her own backbenchers and the DUP, which she relies on to prop up her government.

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"Whether there's a deal or not, I think it's going to be messy for small companies like mine," - Epicure Foods owner, Dan Carlin

With concerns about a no-deal Brexit heightening, a business delegation from Northern Ireland visited Westminster on Monday.

"We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't," says Dan Carlin, of Epicure Foods.

"Whether there's a deal or not, I think it's going to be messy for small companies like mine."

Epicure operates from a 30,000 sq ft frozen and chilled cold store on the outskirts of Belfast.

It transports produce to a variety of outlets, from five-star hotels, to "a working man's cafe", in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Local produce accounts for more than half of what the company sells, but upwards of 30% is imported.

'It's hard to please all the people all the time'

"If the transport companies that we rely on, if there are added costs for them and their 40ft truck is held up at Larne or Cairnryan for an hour, they have to pass that cost on somewhere," Mr Carlin says.

"I'd be concerned about that. There are already whimperings in the transport trade that it's going to put up the cost of haulage."

George Fleming, of County Londonderry-based Fleming Agri Products, is worried that a no-deal scenario would be "catastrophic" for his business as he argues it would "decimate" the Irish and UK cattle sector due to the imposition of World Trade Organisation tariffs.

The company, in New Buildings, close to the border with the Republic, manufactures farming equipment, with 50% of its customers in the UK, 30% in the Republic of Ireland, 15% in Northern Ireland and the rest further afield.

It imports steel from the Republic, wheels from Holland, axles from Italy, as well as components and parts from Slovakia, India and China.

Media caption,
Confused by Brexit jargon? Reality Check unpacks the basics.

Mr Fleming supports Mrs May's withdrawal deal.

"I think the checks from GB to Northern Ireland [under the withdrawal agreement] will be fairly limited, depending on what scenario finalises itself. There are already checks on the NI/GB border for live animals, so I wouldn't see that being a major impact," he says.

"It's hard to please all the people all the time, but from a Northern Ireland point of view, Theresa May's deal was as good as could have been got."

And he has few warm words for either Sinn Féin, which supports the withdrawal agreement, or the DUP.

'One side is as bad as the other'

Sinn Féin stands on an abstentionist platform in Westminster elections, so its MPs do not take their seats in the House of Commons.

"Those that are going over and speaking in Parliament, they are not speaking for the people of Northern Ireland," Mr Fleming says.

"The people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and their primary purpose should be to represent the people of Northern Ireland.

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David Boyd sees "massive opportunities" for Northern Ireland's fishing industry outside the EU

"Those that are staying at home and staying quiet, yes they say we don't take our seats in the UK Parliament, but for the greater good of Ireland, north or south, in this one instance [they should have said] 'we will go and take our vote in the UK Parliament to have an impact for the greater good of Ireland'.

"They refused to do that. One side is as bad as the other."

Among those who see leaving the EU as an opportunity to be grasped is David Boyd, a businessman involved in developing new fishing markets for the Co Down village of Portavogie.

"We (can) start to rebuild the industry in Portavogie to try and reinvigorate this once great fishing industry, and put it back again to what it was 40 years ago prior to the EU intervention," he said.

"Brexit will mean massive opportunities for the fishing industry, we need to be ready to grasp those opportunities... I think better days lie ahead."

Skipper Mark Palmer is also optimistic.

"Hopefully when Brexit comes round there will be more access to better quotas and a better future for the whole industry, that's why the investment is happening," he said.

Despite the concerns, and with nine weeks to go until Brexit day, Epicure's Mr Carlin is stoic.

"I think we'll have to make the best of what comes along," he says.

"As happened during the Troubles, small companies like us have had to adapt and survive, but I am worried about what's going to happen.

"Whatever rules and regulations come along, we will have to comply with them and just try and trade through it."