Almost a tenth of Northern Ireland businesses have established a presence outside the UK because of Brexit, a survey reveals.
It has been a poor start to the year, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry said, with the country the weakest performing UK region.
Some local firms are considering virtual office space in Dublin while another said they were increasing capacity in a warehouse in Belgium as part of contingency planning around the EU divorce.
It added: “The obvious concern is that this new facility proves to be a more viable option going forward.”
Business leaders have criticised uncertainty surrounding the UK’s exit from the EU and Northern Ireland’s lack of local representation at the Brussels negotiations.
The Northern Ireland Chamber and BDO business advisers on Wednesday published a representative survey of 268 firms for the first three months of this year.
It found that a fifth of businesses reported turnover was negatively affected by Brexit.
A fifth are considering establishing a presence outside the UK in addition to more than 20 (8%) who have already acted.
Economists suggested some firms may be stockpiling cash reserves for investment once Brexit uncertainty has been resolved while others said there may be a corresponding movement among EU-based firms to establish a UK presence.
Christopher Morrow, head of policy at the Chamber, said: “We are seeing a growing sense of frustration among our members at the lack of progress on major issues including Brexit and the lack of an Executive, which are impacting on businesses’ bottom line.
“We cannot accept this any longer, it is damaging the economy.”
He noted some signs of growth but said this had slowed amid concerns over manufacturing and services.
Mr Morrow added: “Northern Ireland is the weakest performing UK region across many of our key economic indicators, particularly manufacturing.”
The Chamber members’ survey was one of the broadest available of local businesses.
Mr Morrow said three-quarters felt pressure to raise wages, which could prove challenging when so many were already facing wider cost pressures and a squeeze on profitability.
Brian Murphy, managing partner at BDO Northern Ireland, said unemployment was at its lowest rate in a decade and businesses were still recruiting, an indication that confidence was growing.
“This report shows there is also an increase in investment intentions by local businesses,” he said.
“This is a welcome sign that despite the current uncertainty at government level, businesses in Northern Ireland will persevere and plan for future success.”