Keep economy at heart of agenda

John Healy, president, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Pic by David Cordner
John Healy, president, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Pic by David Cordner
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As EU leaders agree to extend Brexit until 31 January 2020, our members are telling us that they are relieved and frustrated in equal measure. As frustrating as it will be for many, avoiding a messy departure is critical. A short extension which unlocks complexities and allows for a smooth transition is infinitely preferable to a no-deal exit, writes John Healy, President, NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

As attention now shifts towards the upcoming General Election on 12 December, this provides an opportunity to end the political instability and enable a renewed focus on domestic priorities that have sat in the sidelines post EU-referendum.

It also represents an important opportunity for us, as voters and business representatives, to examine the policies of the local parties.

We have a duty to challenge the political parties on those policies and to encourage our politicians as they propose new means of regenerating our economy.

The underperformance of the Northern Ireland economy in particular has been highlighted over the past number of weeks as a wave of new data has been released from economists, official sources and through surveys such as our own Quarterly Economic Survey (QES) held in partnership with BDO.

The QES, which is Northern Ireland’s largest private sector business survey, alarmingly showed signs that the local economy is starting to ‘slip’ into recession. Business confidence is declining, and many key economic indicators fell to an eight-year low.

The survey brings to light serious concerns around economic and particularly political instability in Northern Ireland and the UK, with almost four in five local business leaders believing that a recession in Northern Ireland is likely in the next six to 12 months.

Significantly, around half of members also scaled back or put on hold investment and growth plans on the back of the UK’s vote to leave the EU.

Similar to the QES, the latest PMI published by Ulster Bank, indicated that the Northern Ireland private sector moved deeper into contraction. Output, new orders and employment all fell at sharper rates, while business sentiment dropped to a new record low.

It is important to stress that this is not scaremongering – it is a stark reality check for business leaders, employers, politicians and anyone with a vested interest in the Northern Ireland economy. Behind each and every one of these statistics sit thousands of real, local businesses who are feeling the harsh impacts of this uncertainty and the political vacuum at Stormont.

Therefore, as our politicians head towards the December election, they must come with proposals that will safeguard people’s livelihoods, the prosperity of our communities and the fortunes of our businesses.

An election of any kind is an opportunity to test new ideas, to interrogate policy positions and, indeed, to encourage policy makers to explore new initiatives and proposals.

If we want the parties to keep the economy at the heart of the political agenda we need to let them know that – loud and clear.