Swan song: N.Ireland looks to post-Brexit future


Cookstown (United Kingdom) (AFP)

Violin-maker Martin McClean carves amber wood and plucks at delicate strings in his studio in Northern Ireland, surrounded by stacks of slender glinting tools and precious timber.

The European Union paid for half of his £50,000 ($65,000, 60,000-euro) garden workshop outside Cookstown, County Tyrone, through a rural diversification fund.

Britain leaves the EU on Friday and for McClean, Brexit represents the loss of a patron.

"I'm sad because I'd see myself as European -- and violin-making is very much part of a European tradition," the 48-year-old told AFP.

McClean, seated in his workshop in a worn blue apron, waxes lyrical about legendary luthiers who created bespoke violins, violas and cellos with "sound that can fill a concert hall, and wow and audience, and excite a musician".

He makes about 10 instruments a year, each one costing as much as £10,000. His clients are mostly professional classical performers from around the world.

Recently, he has shipped pieces to Canada, the United States and Australia. One of his instruments will soon go to Malaysia.

But like many firms in British-run Northern Ireland, he is confused -- and concerned -- about what will happen after Brexit.

"When you're a one-man business... every purchase, every customer is quite important," he said.

- Dual system -

Britain's departure from the European Union after nearly 50 years of membership is set for 2300 GMT on Friday.

Existing arrangements will remain unchanged until the end of this year, as London and Brussels enter talks to agree a comprehensive trade deal.

But a dual system enters into force from 2021, to avoid a hard border with Ireland -- a requirement of a 1998 peace deal that largely ended 30 years of violence over British rule in the north.

Goods arriving and staying in Northern Ireland from non-EU countries will come under British rules.

Those going on to the EU via member state the Republic of Ireland will be subject to the EU system.

How the system will work in practice, what its impact on business will be, is unclear.

On Monday, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on a visit to Belfast and Dublin that frictionless trade was "impossible" and border checks "indispensable".

"Business is really still pretty concerned that it's going to be a heavy touch, a burdensome and slow process of complying with whatever the regulations are -- but we just don't know yet," said Roger Pollen, of the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses.

"Because nothing is going to change immediately after Friday, people are hoping that they'll get some sort of clarity of what the change will be at the end of the year."

- Supply chains -

McClean imports timber from central Europe -- spruce from the Swiss Alps and maple from Croatia and Romania -- fittings from India and Italy, and varnish from the United States.

Although his supply chains are modest, he is already seeing the effects of Brexit uncertainty.

"I have a couple of wood dealers that will come and visit me three times a year and I can sort through their stock and I can pick out the wood that I like the most," he said.

"They're certainly of the view that that's not going to happen anymore. That's going to make it more expensive," he said, adding that he will now have to travel personally to view stock.

Northern Ireland is already the poorest region of Britain, as well as the most exposed to Brexit.

Northern Ireland has 28,500 "micro-businesses" like McClean's -- firms employing between one and nine people -- according to a 2018 report from the Enterprise Research Centre.

They account for 111,000 people -- 20 per cent of the workforce -- in the region and operate on smaller margins, making them vulnerable to trading turbulence.

- A new cliff-edge? -

The EU has also warned there may be a fresh prospect of a "hard Brexit" if trade talks do not come to fruition by the end of 2020, as Britain has ruled out extending the transition period.

"If we have no agreement it will not be business as usual and the status quo," Barnier warned. "We have to face the risk of a cliff-edge in particular for trade."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he has fulfilled his promise to "get Brexit done".

But in Northern Ireland, McLean said it was "very much a step into the unknown".

"We don't quite understand it yet," he said. "No one seems to have much of an idea at this stage."