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‘Political stability is the foundation for economic growth but we’ll also need Britain and Ireland’s help’

The Big Interview: Angela McGowan, CBI regional director

By Margaret Canning

As head of the CBI, one of Angela McGowan’s goals is to move Northern Ireland forward. But since her appointment as CBI regional director in October — one of the biggest jobs in business in Northern Ireland — politics, at least, has taken a backward step.

Leading the CBI means representing industry and having contact with political parties and leaders from Northern Ireland, the Republic and Great Britain.

It’s also brought an inevitably increased workload and an even higher profile than the 46-year-old enjoyed as Dankse Bank chief economist for nearly a decade.

And encouragingly for our political classes, Ms McGowan hasn’t lost faith in them, saying they should be given credit for their efforts to maintain devolution up until now.

“Political stability, peace and good governance are the foundations of economic growth. It is in no one’s interests in Northern Ireland to see our political progress slide backwards,” she said.

“I am convinced that the Northern Ireland Executive can deliver a shared future for everyone — we simply have to choose tolerance and peace (which requires some compromise on both sides) or intolerance and instability. That should not be a difficult decision.”

And she says the businesses she represents want to see a swift resolution to the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal, which has resulted in the prospect of a £490m cost to the Northern Ireland tax payer.

“The business community would like to just see this issue resolved as soon as possible in an open and transparent way so that public confidence can be restored and future public funds used in the most fair and efficient way. The public also need reassurances that checks and balances will be put in place to ensure that this type of scenario can never happen again,” she said.

The Belfast-born mother of two succeeded Nigel Smyth in November after his 26 years in the role and Angela’s eight years at Danske Bank.

And it’s tempting to draw a parallel between her 2008 start date at Danske, as the credit crunch began to bite, and the timing of her new appointment, leading Northern Ireland business at a time when it stands to lose out most of all UK regions from a hard Brexit.

While still a Danske Bank economist, Angela played a major part in the debate over Brexit as an outspoken proponent of staying in. Much earlier in her career, she carried out research for a European Commission project at Queen’s University.

She followed up her 2:1 in economics at Queen’s with a Masters in Business Administration at the University of Ulster.

Economics may be dismissed as the dismal science but Angela’s studies were interspersed with plenty of real-world experience, including pulling pints in the student haunt of the Eglantine Inn and working in the Marks & Spencer in Donegall Place.

Angela has been married to fellow economist Peter Dunne — a Dubliner who works in the Republic’s Central Bank as a senior economist — for 21 years.

Now she and Peter live in Holywood, Co Down with two children, Dermot (17) and 15-year-old Rory. The boys are facing their A-levels and GCSEs respectively this year.

If political instability is the biggest problem facing Northern Ireland, Brexit is second, in her judgment. But she won’t indulge in any speculation over how things may work out — though on Twitter yesterday, she tweeted that it was “absolutely astonishing” that the UK could consider leaving the single market and customs union, with 55.6% of UK imports coming from the EU.

“No one knows how this will play out for Northern Ireland, because ultimately there are 27 countries that will have the final say,” she said.

“As an economist I continually deliberate on the best way forward, but without a crystal ball it is impossible to predict the outcome as the number of potential permutations are endless.”

But she believes strong engagement with Britain and Ireland is crucial for the future. “For this region our best chance of success will emerge if the British-Irish relationship that has progressed so much over that last decade and was cemented with the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 is developed and nurtured.

“These two countries have a common history, deep trade links, a common language and shared values in terms of democracy and human rights. I get every sense from my talks with government leaders in the UK and the Irish government that they want Northern Ireland to function well — both politically and economically, when Britain and Ireland are close allies this region will fare best.”

But as well as confronting Northern Ireland’s problems, she’s also vowing to promote a positive message about business.

“I think that sometimes the role of business within society is often forgotten or not really appreciated.

“While the public may associate businesses with providing jobs and putting money in consumer’s pockets, I think that sometimes it is forgotten that nearly 30% of revenues raised to pay for our health services and schools come from businesses too.

““For example, business taxes such corporation tax, Employer’s National Insurance Contributions and business rates are all used to pay for public services.”

And the prospect of fresh assembly elections next month is not a pleasing prospect to the world of business.

“I think that the CBI in Northern Ireland has made it clear that the business community needs a strong and well-functioning Executive if our economy is to thrive.

“We accept that Northern Ireland has its own ‘unique’ history and circumstances which can cause tensions to rise from time to time between parties.

“But at the CBI we recognise that these issues must be ironed out as it is crucial that we have a well-functioning Executive if we are to raise living standards for everyone in this region.

“The Executive may not be perfect, but it can work and should improve over time.

“It must be given credit for paving the way for peace on our streets and I am convinced that it can work if our politicians demonstrate mutual tolerance, respect and compromise.” 

Her appointment last year meant that, along with Ann McGregor as chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of  Commerce and Industry, our two main business leaders happen to be women. 

But if anything, she thinks the number of women in business in Northern Ireland is under-estimated.

“I meet a significant number of entrepreneurs that are female – the owners of Airporter (Jennnifer McKeever), Budget Energy (Eleanor McEvoy) Creative Gardens (Diana Gass) and Mash Direct (Tracy Hamilton) for example. 

“I have genuinely found the Northern Ireland business community to be a very welcoming place for females and I think that local companies work hard on creating a progressive 21st century environment for their staff.”

Despite being the offspring of two economists, neither of her sons is showing a strong interest in the subject. 

“Peter and I watched a great documentary called The History of Oil and were telling the boys they should watch it too.

“A friend of mine joked that only the children of economists could be under pressure to watch a documentary like that.”

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