For the past two-and- a-half years since the Brexit vote, we’ve seen every possible permutation. We’ve been on the brink, we’ve been on a knife edge. There’ve been lights going on and off at the end of tunnels – and still Northern Ireland waits anxiously for an outcome. The period of uncertainty that this has brought for business has been extended further as next week’s General Election brings the prospect of the political landscape changing yet again, writes John Healy, President, NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Whichever way Brexit proceeds, it will provide us with many new and as yet unknown challenges. But it is not the only issue. As I highlighted at the recent NI Chamber President’s Banquet, there is a number of other long-standing issues which we need to address if we’re to continue to grow.
Firstly, there’s the skills deficit that’s affecting all sectors as employers try to recruit the kind of staff they need. How do we meet this demand? How do we manage talent? How do we create leadership that can adapt to change? How do we encourage innovation? These are questions asked regularly by our members.
Also, when will we address the underinvestment in the public and private sector, the hospital waiting lists and the challenges of poor educational outcomes? And when will we see the re-establishment of a Northern Ireland Executive that will help us address these and many other problems– an Executive that’s open, that listens, is committed and competent?
We’ve been a rudderless ship for too long. When even Van Morrison, who has spent a lifetime studiously staying out of Northern Irish politics, feels he has to comment in his latest song “Nobody in Charge’ then maybe we should pay attention. In Van’s own words, “Don’t you think everyone’s had enough?”
This is a critical juncture for Northern Ireland – a time when we need mature leadership - leaders with vision – leaders who won’t drag us back into the past but will help us navigate the path to the future. That is why NI Chamber is currently in the middle of hosting its 5 Leaders; 5 Days series of events with the leaders of Northern Ireland’s main political parties.
They are a series of five separate meetings that provide the leaders with a platform to outline their plans for jobs and the economy in the run-up to the election. But importantly it also allows us, the business community, to contribute to and inform the debate on these and other vital issues.
At NI Chamber, we too are challenging our political leaders and last week published ‘five asks’ from those who seek to represent the interests of local businesses.
First and foremost, it is imperative that our local politicians must meet immediately after the election and prioritise the restoration of an Executive at Stormont so that key local business decisions can be made. They must also ensure that Northern Ireland is not disadvantaged competitively by any decisions made at Westminster, and introduce a wider moratorium on measures that increase business costs.
In terms of Brexit, it is incumbent upon our politicians to agree a deal before leaving the European Union that secures a positive UK/EU trading relationship and avoids a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. Our politicians need to support firms with Brexit planning by closing remaining information gaps for all Brexit scenarios and introducing a temporary SME Brexit tax credit to support businesses that need to undertake specific activity to adjust to changes in trading conditions.
Finally, we want to see the introduction of a simple, fast, flexible and affordable immigration system that minimises the administrative burden on businesses. Any future system must allow access within the immigration system to all skill levels – including temporary, seasonal and permanent roles – with recognition of professional qualifications. We look forward to working very closely with the parties to achieve these aims – the sooner we get an Executive back up and running, the sooner we can do so in partnership.