“We are much more important to the UK than they are to us”

John McCartin exudes confidence, and if you look at the performance of the once beleaguered Quinn Industrial Holdings, of which he is a non-executive director, then you can understand why. It is underscored by a command of detail of the issues his business faces and the dynamics of an emerging Brexit.

Quinn’s profits are up over €20 million for 2016, turnover up a quarter, employment up 13% at 721, average salaries up 5%.  The company’s building products are sold roughly one-third each to Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, where demand there has ensured they’ve enjoyed a 7% increase in prices.

The backdrop, says John, is simple: Britain’s 60 million population need 21.5 million houses. Meeting that target means building 300,000 houses a year but they are only building 150,000, so there is an urgent need to build more and with a scarcity of building materials in the UK,  that’s lall good news for Quinns.

In a post-Brexit scenario, Britain will still need to import. If there are no tariffs then business goes on as normal.  If there are tariffs, and Ireland through the EU reciprocates, then he believes it will only serve to hurt the UK end-user – but certainly not Quinns.

He points out that Ireland imports in total more than it exports, but this trend is reversed in its relationship with the UK. Over the past ten to fifteen years there has typically been a €5 billion deficit in favour of Ireland. So, for example, last year the UK exported to Ireland €19.9 billion worth of goods and services.  In the same period Ireland exported to Britain €14.7 billion worth of goods and services – a gap of €5.2 billion.

John reckons Britain is in danger of getting what it asked for.  “We are much more important to the UK than they are to us.  The rest of the EU is four times more important to us than the UK – so while important, the UK is less relevant.”  That, he believes, leaves the UK weak in upcoming negotiations.

As for a Brexit plan, he echoes the view of many businesses along the border – he also has his own steel business – that it’s difficult to plan when you don’t know what to plan for.  However, in practice it is about imagining the worst and asking if you can deal with it, and also exerting influence where possible.  But for Quinns it’s about improvement, innovation and bigger decisions including, potentially for some elements of the organisation, moving to the UK. Long before Brexit we began making investments in supply-chain infrastructure in Warrenpoint and in England.

Quinn’s is situated so close to the border it’s sometimes difficult to know which jurisdiction you are in.  Waiting for a boardroom conference call one day, someone had to quickly remind the assembled team that this was business from the opposite jurisdiction and they all had to shuffle off to another room.

“The only place for the border is at the ports” says McCartin.  But he doesn’t see the border and tariff issues being resolved in any way quickly.  There will be a vacuum, perhaps for a decade, with little happening in that vacuum. “But whatever happens, we will simply make it part of our lives.  From the point of view of business I am confident as long as we produce quality product.”

The  Frontline Project was carried out by Brexit Border Blog on behalf of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce and Chambers Ireland