Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting NI Chamber’s annual President’s Banquet. At the event, we were joined by business leaders, political representatives and of course, legendary guest speaker, Sir Mo Farah CBE.
As well as being a wonderful chance to catch-up with colleagues and partners in business face-to-face, it was also an important platform to outline very clearly, what the immediate and long-term priorities are to achieve economic prosperity across Northern Ireland.
Serious challenges for some businesses as a result of the NI Protocol have been well documented from the start and of course, there are still issues remaining. We are working in partnership with the NI Business Brexit Working Group to keep these highlighted to the EU and UK negotiators.
Throughout the process we have been guided by our members, 70% of which told us in a recent survey that they believe Northern Ireland’s unique status presents opportunities for the region. You only need to look at a couple of recent announcements to see why.
Almac is creating 1,800 new jobs worldwide, of which 1,000 will be based here. And AMP, one of the world’s biggest packaging companies is coming to Newtownabbey with a £150M investment. These developments are evidence of the unique opportunities of dual market access.
It’s in that context of optimism and opportunity that we very much welcome Michael Gove’s recent statement indicating his ‘confidence’ of progress in the Northern Ireland Protocol talks with the EU, without triggering Article 16.
Our economy has so many of the ingredients required for economic success. We have exceptional talent, creativity and innovation and we are expanding into industries with enormous growth potential. However, there is much more to do to deliver prosperity and to achieve our full potential because unfortunately, Northern Ireland punches well below its weight economically.
The region has remained static for too long, held still by the dead hand of political division, seeing eternal obstacles, not opportunities. As I said on the night, if this place was a business, we would more than likely be out of business.
We still see pockets of unacceptable deprivation, where, for too long, people have struggled to access opportunities to work, to up-skill and to access basic services that most of us take for granted. To really capitalise on the opportunities, we need to re-imagine Northern Ireland’s position in the world as a global centre of creativity, innovation, and prosperity, whilst prioritising a diverse and inclusive society.
Everyone deserves to have a meaningful and rewarding job and whilst the proportion of people in employment has risen consistently for six years, high levels of long-term economic inactivity remain. Rather than view this as a problem, I suggest that we reimagine this as an opportunity.
Today, only 7% of our students benefit from an integrated education. The Independent Review of Education is a real chance to ensure that every young person can benefit from a high-quality education, and crucially, with reconciliation at its core.
We all recognise that poor health, both physical and mental, impacts economic performance as well. So it follows that we need to treat health as a precious national asset and re-define the health challenge as a collective all-of-government task, not one just for the Department of Health. The recently announced multi-year budget could provide a catalyst to tackle the causes of physical and mental ill-health, where the whole of Government could deliver a much richer return than the sum of its constituent parts.
Northern Ireland has huge potential. Of course, old problems remain but it’s time for us to shake off the shackles of the past and move forward together. We need to see our businesses, political leaders and communities all focused on what unites us, in the best interests of Northern Ireland.