The newly appointed President of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber) has said that 2019 must “bring clarity to business – whilst avoiding a messy or disorderly Brexit.”
Succeeding Ellvena Graham as president of the business support organisation which represents over 1,200 businesses across the province, employing over 100,000 people Allstate NI managing director John Healy said that after a tough year, 2019 was set to be very similar.
“2018 has been a year of many challenges for the local business community, with the continuing absence of the NI Executive and the ever more ominous threat of Brexit,” he said.
“The backstop, re-elections, votes of confidence (or lack of) were among the words making their way across news sources in the UK, and even globally.
“And Northern Ireland was, and still is, centre stage. What this means for our members is that they now enter 2019 having not been able to plan ahead for the year due to the ongoing political uncertainty at Westminster.”
Calling for an end to “political games, he said the Chamber wanted to see an outcome that was good for business, consumers, the economy and for the future stability of Northern Ireland.
“Firms are still in the dark as to what trading conditions they will face. Neither the country nor businesses are prepared for a no deal Brexit, so parliamentarians on all sides must redouble efforts to ensure that we don’t face this scenario by default.”
On a lack of an Executive and key decision making, he said it was important to remember that there are a number of issues that needed addressing.
“The priority must be to get an Executive back as soon as possible to implement an economic strategy and progress a number of key projects that are currently being held up in their absence.
“These include the much needed Belfast Transport Hub; further investment projects in the harbour area including Grade A office space for inward investors, a new power station and the cruise ship terminal; the roll out of super-fast broadband and the North South Interconnector to name a few.
“We cannot go another few months without these key decisions being made - another year is unthinkable.”
Addressing the skills shortage, he said 80% of Chamber members were currently facing difficulties filling vacancies.
“We have a huge amount of potential locked in our economy but we need to find a way to unleash it. All members - agri foods to IT and manufacturing - have a big demand for skills. That’s compounded by our flawed university funding model and the fact that the Apprenticeship Levy is not working for Northern Ireland.”
Brexit was also a critical factor in terms of freedom of movement and access to skills,” he stressed.
“Our companies are committed to developing home-grown talent but that alone is not enough to fill the skills gap. Continued access to the labour pool from EEA countries is vital.
“In a post Brexit scenario, businesses need to see a regional approach to the proposed minimum salary threshold for migrant workers - a £30,000 minimum would cut off the supply of much-needed workers for Northern Ireland.”