Northern Ireland’s food and drink industry can continue to grow despite the challenge posed by Brexit if politicians are willing to work together to champion the sector, political leaders were told at the 23rd Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) Annual Dinner.

Speaking at the dinner on Thursday evening, after EU leaders endorsed the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, NIFDA chairman, and chairman of Irwin’s Bakery, Brian Irwin, urged politicians to show flexibility to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

The event, held in partnership with Danske Bank, took place at Belfast’s Hilton Hotel on Thursday, October 17, and was attended by over 200 industry leaders and political representatives.

Keynote speaker at this year’s event was Co-op Food chief executive Jo Whitfield, who has driven successful growth at the Co-op through a period of transformational change for the business.

The NIFDA annual dinner provides a unique opportunity for the food and drink industry to recap on the past year and discuss how it can overcome challenges and continue to grow in future.

Brian Irwin said: “As a nation and an economy, Northern Ireland is uniquely affected by Brexit – not least as the only part of the United Kingdom to share a land border with an EU Member State.

“We have lobbied consistently, at all levels, to make it clear that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is unthinkable for the food industry. We cannot entertain it. As an industry we cannot operate with a border on the island of Ireland, nor can we absorb tariffs to export to Europe.

“We need a workable solution. The UK – EU withdrawal deal we can broadly welcome – it offers important safeguards for NI businesses to continue trading east to west and north to south.

There is still a considerable amount of detail to be worked out, including on VAT, but many key areas have been addressed. We would urge flexibility from our political leaders at this time in order to progress with a deal.

Irwin also highlighted the opportunities for the sector, given the right support from local politicians.

“Despite the havoc caused by Brexit, let us remind ourselves that our agri-food sector is in a period of growth,” he said.

“We have had many successes and have created a great reputation in Great Britain and many countries further afield. There is a strong case for pushing the industry forward as a force for economic growth.

“Once again, I call for the immediate restoration of the Executive, so we can have leaders who will champion our industry and navigate the challenges of Brexit to exploit the opportunities that lie beyond.”