On the evening of the inauguration of Fane Valley Chief Executive Trevor Lockhart as the new Chair of CBI Northern Ireland, Business First met with CBI President Paul Drechsler and Trevor. Not surprisingly, our conversation centred around Brexit.
“Business has a responsibility to make it clear that the decisions made today will affect the next generation and that we have to make politicians very aware of the consequences of those decisions,” CBI President Paul Drechsler said.
“But most importantly we need to repeat that message again and again -we can’t simply say it once and assume it’s been heard.”
Businesses of all sizes and in all sectors need clarity and certainty – and that is the one thing that the outcome of the Brexit referendum has damaged.
Without that certainty, both Paul and Trevor are clear that investors – both domestic and international – will be reluctant to consider Northern Ireland. Worse still, many of our larger companies will begin the gradual move away from the UK.
“We know that 40 per cent of Medium-sized UK businesses have been working on their contingency plans post-Brexit. And if they don’t have clarity and certainty around the outcome of the Brexit negotiations – or at the very least the period of transition post- March 2019 – they will begin to implement those plans. And once you’ve started down that road, there’s no turning back,” Paul said.
He has recognised that of all the regions of the UK, it is in Northern Ireland that the business community speaks with the most clarity and unity.
“Everybody I speak to in Northern Ireland business has a clear understanding of what they want: a working Executive that makes a strong case for Northern Ireland on all levels – and not least in economic development.”
“The situation is very clear,” Paul added. “While UK business is experiencing growth at around two per cent, global growth is closer to four per cent.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland growth is smaller again at around 1.3 percent. When you need around three per cent growth to really take advantage of opportunities – there needs to be some urgency around moving the UK’s Brexit negotiations into high gear.
“With Brexit negotiations now well underway and reaching the crucial trade discussion phase, there has never been a more important time for businesses in Northern Ireland to be heard. Decisions made now will have an enormous bearing, not only on our future prosperity, but also on our place in the global economy.
“Northern Ireland business needs a working Executive in place. For us we need to ensure that there are no tariff borders either north-south or east-west. So it is even more important that Northern Ireland business articulates the future impact of decisions made now.
“The CBI continues to speak to all of the political parties to make them aware of the realities of life for business in all sectors across Northern Ireland, but we can’t achieve this alone. We need to work with partners and we require real political leadership to drive change. Bold decisions must be made and that’s why it’s imperative that we see an Executive, one with a shared vision for our local economy, restored as quickly as possible.”
Highlighting the danger of political indecision around Brexit both at national and regional level, Paul said that “while we continue to experience indecision and show a lack of clarity, others are eating our lunch. International investors want to see certainty, clarity and a clear political focus on the value of economic development.
“If we don’t provide it, other will. So while the UK is indecisive and unable to provide certainty investment decisions are still being made. International investors won’t sit waiting for us to decide what we want or where we are going. They will still invest – but they will do so some place else. Somewhere that provides them with the clarity and certainty they need.”
Paul believes we are living in the most exciting decade in forty years with transition in many of the sectors in which Northern Ireland is strong: cyber-security, Artifical Intelligence, Agri-food and IT. These are areas of potential global growth for Northern Ireland.
There are real opportunities for building world-class and world-beating companies. But to flourish they need to be able to reach global markets easily, recognise that there is a political vision for Northern Ireland and have access to the skills that will drive innovation.
Trevor has spoken previously about the challenges of accessing the skills we need post-Brexit (click here for the article).
But in conclusion, he highlighted his desire to use his position to widen the discussion beyond that of Brexit,
“As Chair of CBI Northern Ireland, I don’t just want to focus on Brexit – we also need to address some of the fundamental challenges facing the Northern Irish economy. Access to skills, support for higher and further education, energy and waste policy, innovation and driving productivity – these are all essential to laying the foundations for a prosperous Northern Ireland.”