After three years of political paralysis, last week finally marked the long-awaited return of the NI Executive. This return to power-sharing has been welcomed by all pillars of society – business, community, unions, education and health, who earnestly hope it signals a long-term, sustainable future for devolved government in Northern Ireland. It focuses on delivering what matters to our citizens – better public services, a stronger economy and a fairer society.
The ‘New Decade, New Approach’ text acknowledges that the economic context has changed significantly in the three year abyss, which itself has caused significant damage to business and the economy. Our politicians are going to need to work fast to begin the process of reversing the harm, whilst simultaneously standing up for business as Brexit reaches the Joint Committee stage and complex trade deals are negotiated in the wake of the UK’s departure from the EU.
Looking to what the immediate priorities for new Ministers should be, for businesses, a number of things must be top of the list. Minister Dodds now needs to implement an economic/industrial strategy with export at the centre whilst also prioritising other strategies around skills, energy and tourism. These strategies are urgently required to provide a pathway to growing our economy in the coming years.
At a time of immense change for the wider UK economy, it is critical that we get our approach to trade and export right. Businesses here have products and services that are second to none and as an export focused organisation, we certainly welcome the focus on investing in business growth for the future. This includes the new Northern Ireland International Trade plan, the establishing of a Trade Advisory Board, a Trade Accelerator Plan and a “Made in NI” campaign.
With 8 in 10 NI Chamber members currently finding it hard to fill vacancies, addressing the skills shortage must be a key focus for the next 12 months. All members – agri foods to IT and manufacturing – have a big demand for skills. That’s compounded by our flawed university funding model. We need to be able to meet the demand by lifting the cap on students and encouraging more people into apprenticeships. At a time of critical recruitment shortages, an Immigration Bill that allows businesses to recruit staff at all skill levels cannot be delivered soon enough.
In terms of infrastructure, Minister Mallon must see that a contractor is awarded for the delayed multi-million pound York Street Interchange project so it can be completed for 2022. Along with the North South Interconnector, this must be given a final go-ahead as soon as possible.
The restoration of the executive, along with the decisive General Election result and the reintroduction of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Bill last year, should mean that businesses enter the first quarter of 2020 with more of the certainty they have been calling for.
NI Chamber looks forward to working with all Ministers as they begin to address the damage caused by three years of paralysis and develop action plans for economic growth.