Discord does not deliver nor help

There have been many tumultuous weeks in Northern Ireland politics, however, over the last short while, even seasoned reporters have said they’ve witnessed things never before seen in their long careers.

Monday, 21st June 2021, 5:00 pm

There have been many tumultuous weeks in Northern Ireland politics, however, over the last short while, even seasoned reporters have said they’ve witnessed things never before seen in their long careers.

Edwin Poots resigned as leader of the DUP less than five weeks after he received the backing of the Party’s electoral college and the Party itself has directed its own choice as First Minister to stand down. A political dispute regarding implementation of a cultural package contained within ‘New Decade, New Approach’ (NDNA) - the political agreement signed to re-establish the Northern Ireland Executive just 18 months ago in January 2020 - has been the source of much of this friction in recent weeks.

NDNA brought an end to three years of political paralysis in Northern Ireland which began in January 2017. During the period, there were no devolved institutions in place at key points of the Brexit process to speak collectively for Northern Ireland. So-called ‘bread and butter’ issues were neglected too, with no advancement on education, infrastructure and, most notably, health - with waiting lists worsening considerably during the period of Stormont stasis. The business community warmly welcomed the return of devolution, as it provided political stability and the capacity to make progress on certain issues.

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FSB Policy Chair, Tina McKenzie

While the cultural elements of NDNA grabbed the lion’s share of attention, and dominated the negotiations preceding the agreement, it is actually a wide-ranging document with commitments in a number of policy areas relevant to business. Commitments on infrastructure included developing the York Street Interchange- a vital upgrade to our motorway network - and better connecting Belfast and Dublin. On trade, a commitment was made to bring forward a ‘Made in NI’ campaign to market this place, and our successes, globally. On childcare, there was a commitment to publish a childcare strategy and identify resources to deliver extended, affordable and high-quality provision of early education and care initiatives for families with children aged three to four. While Covid has undoubtedly required a great degree of policy attention since the institutions were restored, it is still deeply regrettable that politicians have not deemed it appropriate to prioritise these issues.

While childcare providers do their utmost to deliver quality, affordable and accessible childcare, the continued lack of investment from the Northern Ireland Executive to subsidise the cost for families means it continues to be present a barrier to parents, in particular women, to pursue careers or start their own business. It is shocking for an issue to impact so many households across Northern Ireland yet continue to be so persistently neglected by our devolved government. Indeed, it is a shared frustration at the persistent lack of progress on a childcare strategy that led FSB and Women in Business to come together to apply an entrepreneurial mindset to this ongoing challenge - as political agreement, never mind implementation, regrettably, appears a long way off. Following the launch of our partnership last week, FSB and WiB will be coming forward with proposals and a pilot study soon.

Childcare is not alone as an important issue which requires action from government. As our economy recovers from the Covid pandemic, in a post-Brexit era, there will be need for other policy interventions. Investment in skills via the Apprenticeship Recovery package and JobStart have been welcomed, though our labour market will require continuous oversight and action to ensure our talent pool matches the wider demands of the economy. Work on high streets is ongoing and, while business decisions will ultimately determine the future of the high street, Stormont has the potential to create a policy environment conducive to a positive outcome. Given the many issues at hand, our representatives must seek to move forward on all of the policy areas that NDNA sought to address. If the current fragile political environment descends further into discord, this risks re-creating another fruitless period of political limbo that NDNA was supposed to resolve, with all the negative consequences for businesses, families and communities. That would be unacceptable.

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