At the end of June I was honoured to be elected as President of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a role which carries a great deal of responsibility at a critical time for business and the economy.
And while trading conditions undoubtedly remain challenging, after only a few weeks in the role, I have been encouraged by the optimism that is out there. Northern Ireland has so much to offer and like businesses across the province, NI Chamber is focused on the opportunities.
These include dual market access, new trade deals with key markets such as Canada and Australia, the UK levelling up, all-island funding, City Deals and the expertise that is available from our excellent universities and FE colleges.
As a regional economy, we have a unique opportunity to use the NI Protocol to support our recovery. Results from our most recent Quarterly Economic Survey showed that 67% of members believe that Northern Ireland’s unique status post EU Exit presents opportunities for the region, while 47% believe that it will present opportunities for their own business. That’s a window of opportunity we simply can’t afford to ignore.
Right now, we are hearing about its disadvantages and advantages. And while there are issues to be resolved, we shouldn’t lose sight of that fact that we are now in an enviable position of having ease of access to both the UK and EU markets. That unique trading access, paired with the right promotion should make us a more attractive location for foreign direct investment.
If we are to derive confidence from inward investors, we must remove any uncertainties. The focus should be on reducing the administration and costs, which are the negative aspects of the Protocol, and redirecting our attention to the future, with government detaching the development of the NI economy, job creation and investment from party politics. That detachment is critical if we are to benefit from the advantage.
Investing in infrastructure is central to addressing regional imbalances and City Deals provide the impetus for that focus. City Deals are an opportunity to harness additional investment, create new jobs and accelerate inclusive economic growth and recovery. When the packages are implemented they have the potential to be transformative, so we encourage government to accelerate these.
Last week, we were extremely encouraged by the Executive’s commitment to the establishment of an independent Infrastructure Commission, which will be an important catalyst for driving recovery through green growth. It should provide government with the kind of focus required to ensure spending on things like roads and transport networks is linked to the needs of those operating in the economy and will help us realise the tremendous potential of this region to be a world leader in green growth.
Skills is another area of both challenge and opportunity. Covid-19 has exacerbated our existing skills challenges and has accelerated the arrival of the ‘future of work’. Seizing the opportunity for change will involve investing in digital infrastructure, renewed investment in skills and a new appreciation for the importance of life-long learning. The Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland is currently out for response and NI Chamber will be comprehensively feeding in to that. It’s a very timely piece of work and the sooner we can move away from the strategy stage and towards actions, the better.
With so much opportunity on the horizon, this is a really exciting time to be NI Chamber President. I very much look forward to working with new Vice-President Gillian McAuley, Chief Executive Ann McGregor, our Board, Council and the executive team as we do everything we can to help members realise their enormous potential.