Last week, I had the enormous privilege of addressing one of the highlights of the business calendar; NI Chamber’s Annual President’s Banquet. It was a wonderful occasion in the company of colleagues and friends in business, where we celebrated ‘big ideas’ and the contribution that ideas have made to life and work in Northern Ireland.
The night was a really positive occasion, deliberately intended to shine a spotlight on the innovation, imagination and leadership which businesspeople in all sectors across the province have demonstrated in the face of significant challenge.
Those challenges include prices, which we know are right at the heart of business and people’s concerns. Supply chain issues are continuing to drive costs, alongside an energy crisis and a 41-year high inflation level. When it comes to people, we have a shortage of labour and skills which impacts on productivity and growth. Then there is politics. We have a divided, unstable political climate globally and locally which is not good for businesses or households.
On Thursday evening, we were pleased to host many local political leaders, including the Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris. That continued engagement is really welcome but as I said in my speech, we have had nearly six years of very little strategic decision making, when you combine almost 200 days since the election in May with no Executive for three years in 2017 and two years of Covid. We are falling behind significantly in many areas and important time has been lost at great cost. While restoring an Executive may not solve the crisis, its absence makes things worse.
Right now, we are seeing the cumulative impact of no agreed Budget, coupled with the prolonged absence of strategic decision making on difficult issues by local Ministers. Last week’s statement by the Secretary of State on the shape of the public finances was stark confirmation of that.
Until we finally address the fiscal challenges in health, education and infrastructure, it is simply the case that citizens will continue to suffer from sub-optimal services and there will be fewer resources year-on-year to focus on economic growth and job creation.
On the night, I also spoke about why we need to get issues with the Protocol sorted once and for all, to protect our consumers and unlock our economic potential. We also need to see strong and decisive leadership from our political representatives on key issues such as climate change, healthcare, skills and planning to name a few.
We do not deny that the times ahead will be challenging, but with a deeper partnership between business and policymakers we can innovate, drive efficiencies and find sustainable solutions to our fiscal problems. Doing so will require some of those ‘big ideas’ we know that business has, which is why that spirit of collaboration is going to be so valuable.
Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and at last Thursday’s event, I felt it was important to acknowledge what the peace deal has meant for economic prosperity in the years since. It was of huge significance for me personally and was the catalyst that made returning home from Canada, to start a life and career here a possibility.
At that time, things in Northern Ireland were starting to change for the better. It was becoming a welcoming, inspiring place and it is even more so now. This truly is a place where big ideas are thriving; ideas that didn’t exist 25 years ago. There is much to be proud of. We have a global reputation for innovation. We’re making our mark in cyber security, in new technologies, in health and diagnostics, in food security and much more.
We have come such a long way in that time. And while there are challenges ahead, if we can continue to support and develop more big ideas imagine what Northern Ireland might look like in the next 25 years.