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Fears Northern Ireland agri-food sector is on brink over impasse and Brexit

By Ryan McAleer ·

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John McCann, managing director of Willowbrook Foods

The Northern Ireland agri-food industry is "in grave peril" because of the Stormont stalemate and unresolved Brexit issues, a major producer has warned.

John McCann of Co Down firm Willowbrook Foods said the uncertainty meant he had put off plans to invest £1m in the business.

And he has questioned why more business leaders are not speaking out.

The managing director said the lack of ministers means his industry, which is heavily reliant on exports, is falling behind the rest of the EU from a lack of capital investment.

He said Willowbrook Foods, which employs around 380 people in Killinchy, is also facing a major staff shortage. Around 75% of the workforce comes from elsewhere in the EU.

Mr McCann said the company could easily employ up to 600, but claimed people are being put off from coming to Northern Ireland.

The firm is experiencing a period of growth, with turnover of £24.3m in 2017, up from £22.1m in 2016.

But Mr McCann said it had hit a glass ceiling, and put the blame squarely at the feet of our politicians.

"We have a great company, we have loads of potential. But our potential is being stifled by the environment of uncertainty of Brexit, border and staff," he said.

"Here we are, we have all these things going for us, but we have these other problems that could be solved."

Mr McCann said the firm had recently paid international consultants £15,000 to assess the potential impact if Northern Ireland left the EU without a customs arrangement.

"There will be a tariff of 10% on bagged salads, and bagged salads are 40% of our business," he said.

While a number of business bodies last month proposed solutions to ensure crucial decisions affecting the economy are taken, Mr McCann said he was perplexed that more individual business owners weren't speaking up.

"I am saying this because I feel very strongly about it and I can see it going wrong. I can see the politicians in Westminster not really taking enough heed of Northern Ireland," he said.

"I'm worried things are really going to go wrong as far as Brexit is concerned.

"This is my personal voice. What I don't understand is why more business leaders haven't come out like me. Whether they don't want to, or politically it's not good for them, I don't know."

He said around 40% of Willowbrook's produce is exported to the EU. But he warned local businesses were fast falling behind.

"The agri-food industry used to get quite a lot of capital investment, but with our lack of political stability and the lack of ministers there is just none now," he added.

"Northern Ireland agriculture and food processing is an export industry. To be efficient at the European stage we have to automate. We used to get capital investment grants to do that.

"I know money is short, but the point is we're falling behind other EU countries in efficiency."

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John McCann, managing director of Willowbrook Foods