Paul Murnaghan, President, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Right now businesses in Northern Ireland are being tested like never before, with their collective resilience being pushed to its limits by a myriad of challenges. Such a difficult trading environment requires a stable, fully functioning Assembly and Executive.
Failure to elect a Speaker to the Assembly last week dealt yet another blow to business and investor confidence. At a time when our elected representatives should be getting straight to work to tackle very significant issues, we remain in limbo.
The uncomfortable truth is, while this continues, the reputational damage to Northern Ireland as a place to invest and work grows daily. For local businesses, little can be done to mitigate against the litany of challenges including soaring costs and skills shortages without a stable, functioning Executive and legislature.
It is absolutely imperative that all newly elected MLAs get to work quickly, put party politics aside and deliver the certainty and stability that businesses, their employees and everyone in Northern Ireland deserves.
The nomination of a Speaker and formation of an Executive is priority number one – no meaningful progress can be achieved at Stormont until that is in place.
When the next set of Ministers do take up office, their in-tray will be sizable. Within this mandate, as well as dealing with the immediate cost of living and doing business crisis, we need our elected representatives to focus on promoting Northern Ireland internationally; skilling up our workforce for a green, digital and inclusive future; reforming our planning system; going clean and green in terms of the environment and funding our public services adequately.
As business leaders, when we consider Executive priorities these economic drivers are what we naturally focus on because they are incredibly important. At NI Chamber, we believe it is time to add health to that list of business concerns.
Just last week, the British Medical Association Northern Ireland and four royal colleges warned that failure to go into government ‘will put patients at risk’. One even said that ‘lives are being lost.’ It is not news that our health service is in need of reform but clearly, the situation is now reaching a dangerous point. The implications of a crisis in healthcare don’t exist in isolation from businesses, in fact it impacts them directly.
One in four people in Northern Ireland have been on a waiting list for more than a year. That has a direct consequence on labour and productivity, exacerbating two of our biggest challenges and barriers to business growth.
We fully support the need to reform and adequately resource health. The Stormont draft budget proposed a 10% increase in health funding but a squeeze on all other departments. From a business perspective, continued failure to get a grip on health means that the budgets for other important areas like Infrastructure and Economy will fall short of what is required in the long term. That hampers our ability to attract investment, export and grow a competitive economy which funds our public services, supports jobs and benefits everyone in society.
None of these challenges exist in isolation. They are interrelated, complex and difficult decisions will have to be taken but nothing can be achieved until we are in a position to start legislating for change.
It is therefore critical that the new Executive is formed without delay and that all Ministers commit to seeing through a full mandate, delivering on the issues that matter.