This week, we published the findings of NI Chamber’s latest quarterly economic survey, which found that whilst the trading environment continues to be largely positive for businesses, there are signs of some challenges.
In the third quarter of this year, more businesses were operating below capacity, confidence took a slight knock and less recruitment was taking place. Price pressures eased but inflation remains a very significant concern, with labour costs dominating pressures to raise prices.
It is not an exaggeration to say that we are at a pivotal time for business and the economy. In the face of global headwinds, Northern Ireland has a window of opportunity to capitalise on its unique opportunities – we need to take positive action now, whilst it’s still wide open.
Despite very significant pressures, 77% of businesses are continuing to trade well or at least reasonably, which is testament to their individual and collective resilience. But the warning signs are there in the background; confidence has declined after what had been a period of recovery and 55% of members are seeing some slowdown in demand (although for most only a little).
In this survey, we asked members to identify their key concerns and the absence of an Executive was one of the top responses. That comes as no surprise and unfortunately, we can see the impact played out in indicators like business confidence, where there has been a loss of the positive momentum gained in the first two quarters of this year.
Businesses like the one I lead every day have spent the last few months preparing for the first phase of the implementation of the Windsor Framework. It has been time consuming, but we got off to a good start and we need to build on the progress made. With less than a year to go until the next implementation phase, we need to see an Executive restored to advocate on our behalf for the best possible outcomes.
NI Chamber has repeatedly stressed the urgent need for the Executive to return. The issues are stacked up and while we know that having Ministers in place won’t solve all the problems overnight, the absence of a functioning Executive exacerbates the challenges and inhibits our ability to maximize opportunities.
To put it into context, in Northern Ireland we are fast approaching 650 days without an Executive at Stormont – a milestone no one in the business community wants us to reach. We have endured more than 20 months without a devolved administration, which is vital time lost for decisions about spending and overdue reforms on health, climate change and planning. During a continuing cost of doing business crisis, that’s time we can’t get back – so we must look resolutely forward.
Business understands that an incoming Executive will face tough decisions and they acknowledge that it won’t be easy. Priorities will have to be agreed, choices about the public finances made and serious reform implemented in areas like health and education. Business leaders acknowledge the scale of the challenge and they want to play their part in co-designing and delivering solutions. We saw how effective that partnership approach was during the pandemic, so let us see it returned too.
Almost a year ago to the day, as NI Chamber’s then vice president, I made a similar call to see the Executive restored. In the 12 months since we’ve seen so much good; international investment delegations, visits from world-leaders and many businesses innovating and prospering globally. Just think what could be possible with a restored, fully-functioning Executive working in lock-step with employers, innovators and pragmatic leaders from our private sector businesses.