A post Brexit Northern Ireland could follow the Hong Kong model

Hong Kong
Hong Kong

Having spent 30 years working in enterprise oriented Asia it has been fascinating to be home to witness the post Brexit political turmoil and economic uncertainty in entitlement-oriented Europe.

We live in troubling times, with no easy answers and constant amplification of conflict.

Martin Craigs, Chairman of Aerospace Forum Asia and the Iconic Golf Group

Martin Craigs, Chairman of Aerospace Forum Asia and the Iconic Golf Group

However, as the Chinese have long recognised within every crisis there is opportunity.

The referendum shock was a little deja vu for me.

I was close at hand when Mrs Thatcher tripped up in Beijing in August 1983, shocked to hear China would not extend its 99 year lease to Britain of the New Territories in Hong Kong (HK).

Currency and markets crashed and a ‘Leave’ reality had to be imagined.

The ‘Leave’ answer then was a 50-year transition, initiated on July 1 1997. Best described as ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and known as ‘The Handover,’ an interweaving of two diametrically opposed ideologies, communism and capitalism.

Nineteen years on and it is still on track, not without issues but demonstrating that pragmatism can trump ideologue.

Can we learn anything from this admittedly different transition?

The hard part for change-resistant NI, post Brexit, is thinking outside the box and not clinging to traditional demands from any side of our political legacy.

Ian Paisley Jnr recommending that the entitled in NI should apply, for pragmatic, not political reasons for an Irish passport shows we are starting to travel in open-minded uplands.

NI voted Remain and millennials (those born after 1980) endorsed that throughout the UK, but the Brexiteers won. 
The pragmatic new prime minister Theresa May despite siding with the Remain campaign, has stated “Brexit means Brexit”, but wisely declined this week in Belfast to define that more precisely.

Can NI do that itself?

It would pay to try rather than only be shaped by external factors.

My proposal is that NI pushes for special associate status in the EU whilst maintaining its sovereign links to the UK and comprehensive commercial ties via open borders with the Republic.

Also NI should selectively build further its own global trade and tourism links, capitalising on NI connections worldwide (USA particularly) but also looking East to the big markets of the future.

It has many friends to call on.

We are fun to deal with, safe and convenient to visit and very welcoming.

Of the 100 countries I have been to, nowhere beats NI for story telling and authenticity.

Why bet only on one horse when you can bet each way?

Naysayers, as they did in and around HK from 1983-97, will list the no-can-do reasons. Specifics will take time to formulate but concepts first need nurturing.

Can we establish that the majority of people in NI can cope with multiple identity, if it leads to prosperity for the next generation?

This requires no surrender of any cultural heritage.

We now live in a mesmerisingly modern, increasingly interdependent but divisive and therefore less content times.

Local culture and customs (cuisine and craic) should be savoured but the “money never sleeps”, 24/7 news flow is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle.

Nation states cannot control the global economy as they once could.

Money flows to where taxes are low, the talent is deep, where government administrates effectively and interferes rarely.

NI has the underlying talent and tenacity to rise to this challenge.

As Rory McIlroy, our priceless sports icon, rightly says, “it’s all about the people.”

Remember Hong Kong was a barren rock that grew into a global hub via enterprise, ie necessity.

The people were the mother of invention. Less than two million people lived in HK in 1948.

Political and business leaders of NI now need to confidently rise and shine and build a platform for talent to grow, jobs to flow and all boats to rise.

With more lateral thinking and less rear view mirror politics we can turn the 2016 Brexit crisis into an enterprisingly engineered post 2018 opportunity.

• Martin Craigs, chairman of Aerospace Forum Asia and the Iconic Golf Group, began his career at Short Brothers in Belfast. His later work for Saab and BAe/Airbus required him to navigate the UK government and EU. Martin has worked with ASEAN, APEC, the G20 and other business and political organisations. Co Down has been his family home since 1969. Martin is an alumni of Ulster University, OU, INSEAD, Columbia and Cambridge University.