CBI calls for 'shift in economic paradigm' to help businesses tackle the scourge of poverty
Businesses is the "engine" that can help tackle poverty across Northern Ireland, the annual Confederation of British Industry dinner heard.
David Gavaghan, the chairman of the business organisation, told around 500 guests at the event in Waterfront Hall that the province's economy was in need of major change.
"We require an economic paradigm shift to boost regional growth and create the jobs required to tackle the long-term poverty that has pervaded too many parts of our society," Mr Gavaghan said.
"Delivering critical infrastructure projects on time and on budget and achieving the requisite returns requires a step-change in engagement and approach."
Mr Gavaghan, the former chief executive of Titanic Quarter Ltd, said creating jobs for young people should also be a priority for companies - and invited two young people to speak and share their hopes for the future.
"We need to urgently connect to our young people, listen to what issues will make them put their roots down here and maximise the chances of their returning," he added.
"For too long we have lost the most precious of all our resources - our youth."
He claimed Northern Ireland's economy was lagging behind both the Republic of Ireland and UK, highlighting that our economic growth of 1.4% in 2015 was considerably poorer than the UK's 2.2% and the Republic's impressive 7.7%.
He also cited the Belfast arm of aerospace giant Bombardier as an example of what could be achieved in Northern Ireland, with the business steadily increasing its role within its parent company's global operations.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye also addressed the event, and said that a third runway at the airport could help create 5,000 jobs in Northern Ireland by increasing the number of international connections.
Banking giant Barclays - the title sponsor of the evening - also unveiled a new £100m loan fund for SMEs in the province at the event.
The UK-based bank said that the fund was its first support package aimed at SMEs in Northern Ireland and would be open to firms with turnover of under £25m.
Adrian Doran, head of corporate banking at Barclays in the province, said that the new scheme reflected its desire to grow its customer base.
"We believe we are really well equipped to help local SMEs grow their businesses," he added. "We have a long history of banking many of Northern Ireland's largest companies, and in addition we have a huge amount of knowledge from being a major player in the SME banking market in the UK."
First Minister Arlene Foster welcomed the new fund, which she said would support a significant number of businesses.
"I give my assurance that the Executive will continue to do all in its power to support small to medium-sized businesses to thrive and grow," she added.