We recently held a Brexit round table discussion in Belfast with the directors of 20 leading agri-food companies.
The unanimous opinion expressed by all who attended was that taking a ‘business as usual’ approach will be the immediate response of Northern Ireland’s food sector to the challenge of Brexit.
Concerns expressed by the group moving forward included the envisaged fluctuation in the Euro to Sterling exchange rates over the next couple of years, the potential implications of a hard border being established on the island of Ireland and the implications for food companies if they can no longer source migrant labour, on either a long term or casual basis.
There was general recognition, however, that the recent strengthening of the Euro against Sterling is helping to boost food exports from Northern Ireland – at least in the short term.
All the members of the group confirmed that the Stormont Executive must communicate the specific needs of Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector to London as part of the formal Brexit negotiating process. And this work must be done now: leaving it to the last minute could have catastrophic consequences for both the agri-food industry and the economy as a whole. All of this will entail Northern Ireland having the strongest possible voice at Westminster.
Deep concern was expressed at the possibility of the UK allowing tariff-free food imports from countries such as Australia and New Zealand, once Brexit becomes a reality. Such an eventuality will, it was felt, place significant pressure on local food companies supplying customers in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
There was unanimity on the need for the agri-food industry to speak with one voice on all matters concerning the upcoming Brexit negotiations. All in attendance agreed that uncertainty about the final outcome of the Brexit will be bad for every business in Northern Ireland. And the sooner the current vacuum was replaced with a coherent strategy, the better it would be for the economy as a whole. In the first instance this will require the UK government setting out its long term priorities for all the agri-food sectors. It will then be a case of fleshing these out in a detailed plan, which will give certainty to both food and drink businesses and farmers.
Agri-Food is a major sector in Northern Ireland and one with plans for significant future growth. The sector has and will again react resiliently to the inevitable changes due to Brexit however it is imperative that the unique needs of the Northern Ireland agri-food market are understood by policy makers particularly at Westminster. Our clients want to grow their businesses but uncertainty of the future shape of the Brexit deal could be a drag on future investment plans.
Companies are urged to engage with experts when it comes to dealing with growing their business post Brexit.