We need stability more than ever

Just 18 months ago Northern Ireland started 2020 with a great deal of optimism. New Decade, New Approach put us on the right path, after three years without an Executive.

Monday, 28th June 2021, 5:00 pm
Adrian Doran, CBI NI Chair
Adrian Doran, CBI NI Chair

Just 18 months ago Northern Ireland started 2020 with a great deal of optimism. New Decade, New Approach put us on the right path, after three years without an Executive.

Business had clear priorities in what it wanted to see from the long-awaited agreement. It was a relief to see commitments to “turbo charge” infrastructure from waste water to the York Street Interchange. Promises of an ambitious Energy Strategy, to ensure Northern Ireland reaches net zero by 2050, a quest for better skills, better jobs and better living standards for everyone were exactly what Northern Ireland needed to see delivered.

Then came the pandemic.

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Covid-19 changed everything. The Executive had to get down to business in a thoroughly different way. And how much harder it would have been to weather the storm without a government.

Executive interventions, from business rate reliefs to grant schemes, have sustained many local firms. Having local politicians make the decisions that matter, although at times challenging, has been vital in protecting public health and in laying a steady path to opening up.

But as we all begin to look to life beyond lockdowns and knuckle down to the business of economic recovery, it is a matter of fact that since 2017 our institutions have spent more time in suspension or crisis than they have delivering for businesses.

Recent weeks have reminded us of the pain of, and frustrations that come with, political instability. We need a functioning Executive which delivers on the challenges of the day. The list for action is long.

The Department for the Economy has put forward exciting and ambitious proposals for a new Energy Strategy for NI, to sit side by side with its Economic Recovery Action Plan. The race to net zero is rich with opportunity, but every second we waste on the start line makes the economic prizes harder to reach and our targets harder to hit. The consultation period on the Strategy’s proposals ends next week. What impact could a start stop Executive have on it’s much needed delivery?

Then look at some of the delivery mechanisms we have for any such plan. Many renewables projects are already stuck in a planning system where processing times for major applications are now double the target. Again, we have a statutory review underway. This needs to deliver much needed improvements, as quickly as possible, because planning has always been – and will remain – a key enabler of economic growth.

That feeds into wider investment in infrastructure too. Unlike every other part of the UK and Ireland, here in NI we still don’t have a long-term framework on infrastructure. That’s despite the unequivocal recommendation by the Ministerial Advisory Panel, which included the CBI, that Northern Ireland needs an Infrastructure Commission. Without it, we’ll struggle to deliver on the ambition for cleaner, greener, sustainable and inclusive growth.

We also have to face up to the massive challenges of reforming our health and education systems, so that they can effectively deliver for everyone in our society. This will inevitably entail tough (and possibly unpopular) decisions that our politicians simply cannot continue to shy away from.

At every turn, there are examples of legislation, big and small, that are awaiting action. Where Northern Ireland is falling behind the rest of the UK. Like the little-known Damages (Return on Investment) Bill currently at Committee stage, which provides the framework for setting the personal injury discount rate. The rest of the UK acted on this when the Assembly was suspended – and Northern Ireland now has the lowest discount rate anywhere in the world based on a flawed methodology. That means higher rates of compensation, higher costs to the public purse, and higher insurance costs unless the Bill is passed.

We are alert and attentive to the external challenges faced – but that’s why we need stability more than ever. The benefit of having an Executive was clear during the pandemic. We now need our politicians to come together, to deliver for all communities, unlock business investment and put us on the right track for sustainable economic recovery.

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