“The best IoD Brexit event to date” was the verdict of IoD EU expert, Allie Renison, speaking about the IoD Northern Ireland Brexit workshop held in May.
Allie was one of four speakers, who each set the current context around Brexit, at this action-focused session held at Riddel Hall at Stranmillis and organised by IoD Northern Ireland, Catalyst Inc and Bank of Ireland UK. In her presentation, Allie referred to the IoD’s Navigating Brexit report and some of the issues around hard or soft border, the Single Market, relationships in other countries like Norway, potential trade deals and possible VAT payment structure changes. Allie joined a delegation of Northern Ireland business organisations that visited Brussels in early May and will return in October. InterTradeIreland’s Director of Strategy & Policy, Aidan Gough, encouraged businesses to plan, act and engage, pointing out that 98% of businesses monitored by his organisation haven’t even started planning yet. Aidan talked about the free trade agreements, tariffs and non-tariff barriers that will affect trade. He urged business leaders to engage with the business bodies as the negotiations proceed.
Professor Lee McGowan from Queens University Belfast looked at some of the constitutional issues and the reaction of other countries following the triggering of Article 50. For most of these countries, Brexit is an important issue, but it is not (with exception of Ireland) the most pressing issue. Other concerns remain the stability of the Euro and the ongoing migration question. The election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France and the seeming inevitability of Angela Merkel securing a fourth term as German Chancellor have reinvigorated the European project. The Brexit negotiations are going to be tough and will take time. Article 50 has been triggered and the clock to exit in March 2019 is ticking. Lee referred to the Great Repeal Bill and asked if our leadership in Northern Ireland is ready to deal with the impact of the changes ahead.
Finishing off the context presentations was Alan Bridle, the Bank of Ireland UK Economist & Market Analyst, who highlighted the potential scenarios of the Northern Ireland economy around Brexit as well as the potential opportunities outside trade barriers.
Some companies are already getting prepared to deal with whatever Brexit might throw at them. The workshop included presentations from three local business people.
Mike Mullan from Moy Park addressed the issue of Skills and Employment in Northern Ireland’s food industry, where there are around 30-40% non-UK employees amongst the 100,000 agri-food workforce. Mike talked about how labour issues can be addressed, including an appropriate migration policy, securing residency, retaining current staff, growing your own talent, work permit schemes and a seasonal agri workers scheme. Driving productivity is one way of tackling the problem of skills shortages.
On the subject of Import and Export Trading, Cormac Diamond of Bloc Blinds talked about the practicalities of offsetting the foreign exchange impact, creating License Agreements, the importance of maintaining liquidity and using Brexit as a springboard to expand to the EU and beyond. Cormac views Brexit and its unknowns as a challenging time for business but has to adapt to use it as a catalyst for growth.
And speaking of foreign exchange, Shaun Moore Head of Global Markets at Bank of Ireland in Belfast was on hand with some advice, particularly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) that pre-planning is vital. Currency is always a risk. He suggested that companies determine a policy for dealing with currency volatility and use of hedging, and review the policy on a regular basis.
Another member of the IoD’s Policy Unit team, Seamus Nevin, considered some of the workforce issues for Northern Ireland including the fact that 30,000 cross the border each day to work. He said that the Republic of Ireland stood to gain an estimated 20,000 jobs from the UK Financial Services industry. With companies potentially ‘border jumping’, Northern Ireland is the area at highest risk in the UK of losing jobs.
Seamus pointed out that 5% of GDP in Northern Ireland relates to tourism and that an estimated 60,000 new workers would be required in 10 years’ time. He also noted that migrant labourers from the EU comprise 5% of the total NI labour force but some sectors of the Northern Ireland economy are particularly reliant on EU workers. Typically 33% of those working in the tourism and accommodation sector or in the agricultural and farming sector are immigrants while one-fifth in the manufacturing sector come from overseas. The right of these workers to remain in NI after Brexit is not certain so Seamus recommended members audit their workforces to assess who their non-UK workers are and plan for skills needs in the future.
Closing off the speakers, Frankie Devlin, Indirect Tax Partner from KPMG described how his firm has developed an Indirect Tax Impact Assessment Tool, which can be used to assess supply chain scenarios and impact of a hard Brexit should the UK leave the Customs Union which looks likely. The imposition of tariffs will have an impact in terms of administration and resourcing costs, and, therefore, will add to the costs for Northern Ireland companies, particularly in those sectors with high tariff rates such as Agri-Foods. He too saw Brexit as a driver for change in workplace activities and in encouraging more innovation.
Delegates at the workshop engaged in roundtable discussions on the issues raised by speakers. These discussions were recorded by note takers and will be collated into a report for participants and other interested parties.