Our collective resilience will be tested

As businesses across all sectors open fully, Northern Ireland’s economy is showing signs of recovery and there are real grounds for optimism as it returns to growth.

Ian Henry, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Ian Henry, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry

NI Chamber’s Quarterly Economic Survey and numerous other indicators, including Ulster University Economic Policy Centre’s Summer Outlook show that confidence around turnover and profitability is improving, with many businesses making positive changes like exploring new markets and increasing staffing.

While an uplift in confidence is certainly welcome, it cannot mask the raft of challenges which lurk beneath the surface of renewed optimism. Increased costs are a significant barrier to business growth and long-standing challenges around skills and investment in digital and physical infrastructure have not been addressed. Issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol have become political and now seem to the primary focus of policy makers when they should be directing their attention to the future.

What business and society needs is a government which is united in addressing Northern Ireland’s long-term issues. With change around the Executive table imminent, Ministers have an opportunity now to reset the dial and turn their attention away from party political wrangling towards issued based policy making which supports jobs and economic growth.

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First Minister designate Paul Givan and his Ministerial team have weighty portfolios and the Northern Ireland Protocol will be high on their agenda priorities. From a business perspective, whilst the Protocol presents considerable cost and administrative challenges, it also places us in the enviable position of having ease of access to both the UK and EU markets. We urge all Ministers to focus now on reducing administration and costs, which are the negative aspects of the current arrangement.

Covid-19, EU exit and NI’s unique trading position have been significant disruptors to the status quo and incoming Economy Minister Paul Frew must ensure that businesses of all sizes continue to receive the necessary financial and practical support they need to recover and prosper. He is challenged with creating the conditions for a vibrant and externally focused private sector which grows the economy, generates income from abroad and supports sustainable employment & earning.

Providing support to the region’s exporters will be key to this. In addition to resolving practical issues with new trading arrangements, we also need to boost exporter and pre-exporter confidence by identifying opportunities as they arise from changing global consumption patterns, exchange rate movements and supporting exporters to trade in Asian economies.

The future of work has arrived earlier than expected and new Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has a central role to play in ensuring that the system prepares our young people well. We must respond to increased demand for systems skills like programming, STEM, data analytics and robotics if we are to grow a competitive and outward looking economy.

As we move forward, our collective resilience will be tested. Sustained, long-term recovery depends on the same spirit of collaboration, compromise and co-operation that saw us through some of the worst weeks of the pandemic. When the need was great enough, the politicians and people of Northern Ireland proved what they could achieve together. So while the make-up of the Executive may look different now, that unity of purpose must prevail. As she leaves the political stage, I would like to pay tribute to former First Minister Arlene Foster and acknowledge the contribution she has made to the economy and society, in both her most recent role and as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

My Presidency of NI Chamber has coincided with an exceptional period in history and while it has certainly been challenging, it has also been a very enjoyable experience. I wish incoming President Paul Murnaghan a very successful year when he takes up the mantle at the end of this week.

Throughout my term, it has been my privilege to work closely with Chief Executive Ann McGregor, the Board, Council and Executive team. They have worked exceptionally hard on behalf of member businesses over the past year. I want to particularly thank the NI Chamber team for all of their hard work during my time in office and know they will continue to do so as we chart the path to recovery and growth.