By Kirsty McManus, National Director, Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland
It is said that a week is a long time in politics and that being the case, the next seven days will surely prove to be among the longest on record.
With the so-called meaningful vote on the draft withdrawal agreement set to take place in Parliament next Tuesday, 11th December, it remains unclear whether enough support can be garnered to ratify the deal allowing negotiations to move to the crucial next step of formulating a new future trading relationship with the EU.
From the IoD’s perspective, we have made it clear from the moment a deal on the withdrawal agreement was reached that while by no means perfect, the clarity and certainty that it potentially provides businesses is exactly what our members have been asking for.
The agreement between the UK government and the EU provoked a wide range of reactions from across the political spectrum but regardless of their view on Brexit generally, our members have been telling us that avoiding a ‘no deal’ is a main priority.
We have joined with them and other representative bodies, travelling to Downing Street to meet with the Prime Minister Theresa May and have continued to engage with other political representatives on the national and local stage.
Similar to others, including UK and EU negotiators, we do not want to see the backstop come into force but consider it an insurance policy to avoid a hard border in the event of a gap between the end of the implementation period and the start of our future trading relationship.
Internal trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is of critical importance to our regional economy, accounting for almost of all external sales and worth more than £10 billion, so it must be protected.
Likewise, trade across the Irish border must be safeguarded particularly for sectors such as agri-food that are highly integrated across the island. Food, beverages and tobacco account for half of cross-border manufacturing trade while a quarter of all milk produced in Northern Ireland is exported for processing south of the border.
The deal on the table is our current best chance to ensure an open border remains to allow the 30,000 people that cross it every day to continue to live their lives as they do now.
When it comes to next week’s vote, politicians of all parties and backgrounds must be clear about the consequences of their choice.
It is certain that the EU has no intentions of reopening the agreement while there is no consensus on whether a second referendum is an appropriate way forward.
For those with the power to vote, ratifying a withdrawal deal is currently the surest way to deliver certainty about the immediate future when the Article 50 timeline runs out next March.