Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland firms will still grow but we need leadership to prosper

In a new series this week, our business leaders speak out on the importance of devolved government to the economy

By Trevor Lockhart

Business leaders can often be dismissive of the value of a devolved administration. They get frustrated at the slow pace of decision-making and a perceived reluctance to tackle the difficult issues. Some also point to the recent economic growth we have enjoyed and conclude that devolved government is optional.

I disagree.

Northern Ireland faces significant economic challenges and they can only be successfully confronted by a genuine partnership between business and government.

We know that such a partnership can work. The Going for Growth strategy has been a great example of what business and government can achieve when they work together. Under its aegis, the agri-food sector continues to grow strongly.

However, the job is only half-done. Key actions, including the development of a dedicated Northern Ireland food marketing body, an agri-data hub, an integrated land management strategy and an agri-food processing investment scheme, remain unfulfilled - and will remain unfulfilled until we have local ministers back in place to drive these measures through.

The biggest challenge businesses face is, of course, Brexit. The UK Government's position paper on Ireland and Northern Ireland rightly identifies the importance of protecting North-South and East-West trade.

The agri-food sector is in a unique position where our supply chains have developed on an all-island basis, but our main market remains Great Britain. Interruption to either could have serious consequences.

It is, therefore, welcome that both the EU Commission and UK Government recognise that the unique social and economic characteristics of the island of Ireland require a unique solution.

This recognition is an opportunity to turn a threat into a major opportunity, but requires business and a restored devolved government to work together to push for the solution that best benefits Northern Ireland - not allow others to choose it for us.

Of course, there are several policy areas besides Brexit where business seeks progress. We need a devolved government back in place to develop a regional industrial strategy that effectively tackles our competitiveness issues.

We need progress on infrastructure investment, finalisation of the reduction to the corporation tax rate, action on high energy costs and, foremost of all, action on skills.

Every business I talk to is reporting a growing shortage of skills at all qualification levels. This is concerning as no business can prosper without qualified staff. We urgently need action to address this issue - getting more people back into work and at the same time upskilling our existing workforce.

This can only be achieved by a devolved government willing and able to push through reforms in our primary, secondary, further and higher education sectors. We must ensure all our citizens have the opportunity to fulfil their potential in a modern knowledge-based economy.

Of course, a crucial element required to address our shortage of appropriate skills is continued access to the wider EU labour pool. EU nationals make a valuable contribution to both our economy and society. Without them many businesses simply wouldn't be able to grow.

Post-Brexit, we know the UK's migration system will change. We need a devolved government to effectively argue for the creation of a pro-business flexible system that takes into account Northern Ireland's unique needs. If we don't, we risk leaving businesses with no choice but to direct investment elsewhere because they simply cannot get the staff they need.

Businesses in Northern Ireland are resilient. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming political negotiations I am confident that local firms will continue to grow and prosper.

However, if they are to reach their full potential, and if our citizens are to receive the full benefits of a prosperous economy, then we need an inclusive devolved government which provides real leadership and places the economy at the heart of its decision-making.

Trevor Lockhart is group chief executive of Fane Valley

Belfast Telegraph

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