Sunday 19 November 2017

Northern Irish pub baron calls last orders for EU

Tim Martin, chairman and founder of JD Wetherspoon
Tim Martin, chairman and founder of JD Wetherspoon
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Tim Martin, the 61-year-old Northern Irishman behind giant pub chain JD Wetherspoon, this week emerged as one of the biggest financial backers of the Brexit campaign.

The pub baron, who has five bars here in the Republic, insists that a vote to leave the EU on June 23 will not affect his chain's ambitious expansion plans here.

He told Review that he will continue with plans to have 30 pubs in the Republic, even if there is a vote for Brexit in the referendum.

"If we vote to leave, it will make no difference whatsoever to our plans in Ireland," says Martin (above), who has amassed a fortune estimated at over €300m from his chain, which now has more than 900 pubs.

The businessman confirmed that he has given €250,000 to the Vote Leave campaign as it prepares for the Brexit referendum.

Asked if he thought Brexit would make it more difficult to trade in Ireland, he says no.

"I don't think so. If you look at the successful companies in the catering trade, universally they are American.

"McDonald's, Starbucks, Burger King trade very successfully in Ireland and they are not from the EU. Not one business from EU countries in the pub and restaurant trade has been as successful as the Americans at opening in other countries.

"It is really a shaggy-dog story to say that it would make a difference, because Britain's biggest trading partner is the United States."

The casually-attired Martin grew up in Northern Ireland and New Zealand, and his father worked as a Guinness rep in Derry.

He set up his first pub in London almost four decades ago when he became bored of studying law at university.

"What bloody awful pubs they've got in London. Bugger it, I'll open my own pub," he recalls thinking to himself.

The Watford-based Wetherspoon chain now has annual sales of almost €2bn, and employs 35,000 staff.

Martin's entry into the pub market on this side of the border in 2014 has shaken up the bar trade, as the Wetherspoon pubs compete fiercely on price.

So what motivated the pub baron to join the Brexiteers and put his money where his mouth is?

"My main point is that democracy is vital for prosperity and freedom... If you look around the world, the countries with the highest levels of freedom and prosperity, apart from a few Gulf oil states, are democracies.

"In the EU, democracy is slowly being removed. It has moved from being a Common Market towards being a union."

Martin believes that the laws of the EU are instigated by the European Commission, which is not elected, and cannot be deselected by voters.

"The EU is heading in the wrong direction. We should have a common market and we should have good relations with the EU," he says.

The Wetherspoon founder insists Brexit should not affect workers moving between Britain and Ireland.

"I personally think we should have mobility of labour, as Ireland and Britain had for many decades before they were in the EU."

Martin says the US example is a good one for Ireland, because it enshrines democracy and freedom in its constitution.

"Millions of Irish people have gone to North America to live," says the businessman. "They haven't gone to South America, where democracy is shaky."

Martin has repeatedly argued that businesses are hampered by red tape from Brussels.

"The regulations from the EU make it extremely confusing, because I don't think many people know where Brussels laws and regulations end and national laws start. It's chaotic."

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