Firms and politicians need to lead

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Well, what a dramatic few weeks it has been for UK politics. As temperatures soared across Northern Ireland, so did businesses’ interest in our new Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

Last week, we saw a lot of political talk from all sides during the PM and Secretary of State’s visit to Belfast. What’s clear is Northern Ireland businesses will continue, for now, to face the same daunting realities as they did before.

Leaving the European Union without a deal on October 31 has become a serious possibility. Boris Johnson and his team are adamant. At the CBI we could not have been clearer: no deal will damage our economy here no matter how much we prepare. Our view has not changed.

NI businesses hope that the new PM’s enthusiasm to secure a deal that prioritises frictionless trade deal for both goods and services with the EU, matches the energy that is being spent by the UK Government to prepare for a disorderly Brexit. A deal would open many doors that have been closed by continued Brexit uncertainty and unlock a trade deal could unleash pent-up investment for our nation that has been on hold for too long.

But we are also pragmatists. Until a good deal becomes a reality, all firms must consider their options if we leave without one.

Despite the millions spent by NI businesses on no deal contingency planning, they remain hampered by unclear advice, timelines, cost and complexity. And as the Chief Executive of a NI agri-food company, I know this sector has felt these concerns particularly keenly.

At the CBI, we have been preparing our Northern Ireland members for the possibility of no deal for many months. And to support this vital work, the CBI has published a comprehensive review of existing no-deal plans with recommendations for the UK Government, European Commission, member states and firms. But the unprecedented nature of Brexit means some aspects cannot be mitigated for Northern Ireland. Even with the best preparation in the world, the shock of no deal can only be reduced, not removed.

Our new PM must go the negotiating table so that this wasteful and complex process becomes redundant. EU preparations lag behind the UK’s. It’s in their interest as much as ours to use the dynamic of a new PM to break the Brexit logjam and protect our peace and prosperity. But it’s not just Brexit where NI businesses are crying out for compromise from politicians. Power-sharing at Stormont must be returned urgently. If not, our economy could stand to lose nearly £1 billion by the end of the year. Firms have been calling out for this for more than two years now, and with a new PM in post we desperately want to see some renewed energy brought to this process. We must get the North South Ministerial Council fully functioning again. And we need to ensure that the British-Irish Council established under the Good Friday Agreement plays its full part in promoting those beneficial relationships between the two islands. Northern Ireland businesses want to get back to focusing on creating economic growth, raising living standards and generating opportunity for generations. That’s why CBI NI has been leading the charge on a range of issues beyond Brexit. We remain focused on how business can, in partnership with policymakers, improve Northern Ireland’s infrastructure. We were delighted to see the Department of Economy open procurement for its £165 million ultrafast broadband rollout scheme - following our efforts to bring together all sides to agree on the best way to improve digital connectivity.

With further industry support and investment, this project will deliver a network that is fit for Northern Ireland’s future and could benefit the economy to the tune of £1.2 billion. CBI NI will continue develop its Digital Skills Action Plan and looks forward to welcoming firms to its Digital Summit on September 27.

In digital infrastructure, as well as many policy areas, businesses continue to demonstrate leadership on behalf of our nation. The people of Northern Ireland are looking at our politicians to do the same.