Belfast Telegraph

'Devolution best' is call from business in Northern Ireland

By Margaret Canning

Business groups have called for strong leadership from political parties in the next few weeks as talks begin about forming a new government.

And as Chancellor Philip Hammond prepares to deliver his first Spring Budget tomorrow, economist Dr Esmond Birnie said Northern Ireland's own Budget was now "seriously late".

A Budget for 2017/18 had not been agreed by the Executive even before the political crisis which led to last week's election.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire met the leaders of the parties yesterday to discuss forming a new Executive, a process which is to be completed within three weeks.

But the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) said restoring devolution must be a priority for the parties and that "devolution is best".

Spokesman Ben Collins said securing Northern Ireland's interests in relation to Brexit was "of crucial importance".

"An Executive should put forward a Northern Ireland-specific case in relation to Brexit, in order to highlight the unique circumstances we face, namely the border with the Republic of Ireland, the ability to attract inward investment and access to the single market," he said.

"And the UK government needs to ensure that our unique circumstances are recognised in order to give clarity and certainty for the future."

Dr Esmond Birnie, senior economist at the Northern Ireland Economic Policy Centre, said it looked that the decision-making at Stormont necessary for a Budget to be concluded was likely to be stalled.

"There is a growing and unsatisfactory possibility that by default we will have to rely on a holding budget put together in the summer by civil servants," he said.

And he said tomorrow's Budget in Westminster would pose difficult questions for Northern Ireland's finances. "How can Stormont balance the books over the next three to four years given that any easing of austerity (any positive 'Barnett consequentials') could be quite small?" he said.

"How is the future cost of nursing and residential care for elderly going to be divided between families and the State? When will we engage in some radical reform relating to commercial rating, and are we still on course for corporation tax devolution in April 2018?"

Glyn Roberts, head of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Association, said: "They key challenge is for the political parties to hit the ground running for immediate talks on forming an administration.

"Continuing instability is both bad for business and the economy as a whole.

"Direct rule is not an option because while devolution has been far from perfect, it is preferable to government with unaccountable ministers and civil servants."

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