Taking policy goals we all agree on

These are the hardest times that most of us can remember.

Adrian Doran is Chair of CBI Northern Ireland
Adrian Doran is Chair of CBI Northern Ireland

These are the hardest times that most of us can remember.

The virus has taken many lives and lockdowns have wreaked havoc on our economy. Our children remain at home with a year’s disruption to their education. Businesses have folded and many more face a tough battle to survive. It may seem, therefore, that to talk now of the decade ahead is misplaced. But I think it is what the crisis demands.

‘Build Back Better’ is easy to say but much harder to do. Business and government need to something completely different in recent memory - forge an economic strategy for the next 10 years. That starts with a vison, a plan and a consensus to pursue it. The confluence of three major shocks – Brexit, Covid and climate change – demands that Northern Ireland must do things differently. Brexit and the Protocol demands that we are far more proactive about international trade. Covid has widened both regional and sectoral inequality. And the ambitious targets we have set for ourselves on net-zero require an accelerating rate of change in our economy.

At current Climate Change Committee estimates, UK low carbon investment each year will need to increase from around £10bn in 2020 to around £50bn by 2030. Northern Ireland will need to play its part and step up to the plate. Yet it is staggering that not for decades has NI - or the rest of the UK - coalesced around a shared economic vision. For decades, successive governments swung between the view that either Ministers should run the economy or stay out of it altogether. In more recent times, strategies have been conjured by politicians with businesses on the outside looking in. Neither prospered. And it’s fair to say a lack of an Executive for a few years didn’t help too.

There are reasons for optimism. We have leadership and strengths in global science, life science industries, cybersecurity and fintech to name a few. The size of the prize for getting it right is real. History will judge how we mapped a path in 2021 to get to 2030. So, after a false start to this decade, here’s what I suggest.

First, NI needs a long-term economic vision within a UK-wide strategy, resistant to political cycles. It will need to consider competitiveness in sectors - internationally traded - where R&D, high skills, innovation prowess will enable us to compete globally. We must use our unique trading position under the NI Protocol to our advantage, and foster growth and investment that’s shared in every part of our society.

Second, let’s do this together. Let’s escape the ineffectiveness of policy made in isolation by securing genuine collaboration and co-design. Business, governments across administrations in the UK and Ireland, and unions working together in partnership. As we’ve seen from the development of the Job Retention Scheme – it really does work.

Third and finally, business should act with agency, not just advocacy. While the Executive and UK Government must let us in to help forge the vision and plan, we must make things happen ourselves.

The CBI will play its part, too. In the next few months, we will be working on identifying and sizing up the prizes available for Northern Ireland and the wider UK in the decade ahead. In so doing we will take policy goals we all agree on – from net-zero, infrastructure, greater innovation to future skills – and begin making them real. Identifying the new markets and methods; the global profit pools and how to access them; and what it will take for firms here in NI and across the UK to win in these areas. We will come forward with blueprints to share with the Executive and UK Government, as well as engage countless numbers of firms in what it would take to deliver. We can ask policymakers to do better – and we will. But we have it within ourselves to make a better decade. In our firms we can pursue growth that’s shared. We can make our companies and industries competitive, dynamic, inclusive and sustainable. We can practice what we preach. And we can start now.

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