Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

We can now move economy forward - CBI chairman's parting message

Ian Coulter (left), pictured with Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, has pushed for devolving corporation tax

Ian Coulter, who is now standing down as chairman of the CBI in Northern Ireland, has campaigned continuously for the devolution of corporation tax to Stormont. To his regret, a decision must wait until the autumn of 2014.

In his 'day' job, Ian Coulter is a senior partner in Tughans, one of the larger influential legal businesses in Northern Ireland. He has served as chairman of the regional committee of the CBI for the last two years and leaves with a mixture of relief, as his diary pressures ease, and reflections on their efforts to improve the impact of Government policies.

After his short period as the local CBI leader, what made the experience worthwhile? Two answers.

First, he now has a better understanding of the important complex multiple relationships between the private and the public sector.

Second, it has given him an opportunity to improve his own understanding of an even wider range of important issues than he might experience in his own professional career.

"For the first time for many years we have a real opportunity to move the economy forward," Mr Coulter said. "The CBI has been very active and tackled some of the difficult issues including access by businesses to finance which has been a critical concern. On energy policy and prices, we have taken an objective view on a very complex minefield."

"Other key topics for CBI (NI) have been an improved preparation of more people with adequate skills, better employment legislation, and stronger partnerships between the public and private sectors.

"CBI has done its homework, prepared arguments, and made recommendations. Then, where relevant, ministers at Stormont and at Westminster have been engaged in discussions."

But are the ministers doing any more than listening politely?

"That is for others to judge. We are getting the messages across. One of our problems in Northern Ireland is the complex nature of Government in a multi-party coalition," he said.

There is a note of reservation in the thoughts of Mr Coulter on the effectiveness of the NI Executive: "Are we all really focused on the need to grow businesses that will draw us out of recession? It is businesses that are going to deliver better paying jobs and the focus must be on making our businesses grow. We have some outstanding businesses that show our potential."

Referring to the case made by the CBI for an improved programme of infrastructure development and a linked larger capital investment plan, there is some assurance that there may be changes.

"I hope that the platform has been established on what we have asked for. Government has asked us to meet the ministerial sub-committee on the economy and we welcome this," he said.

The decision-making system in Northern Ireland causes some reservations.

"If we can get the decision making structure right, then we can move these issues," he said. "For example, in CBI we would welcome any improvements through the proposed Planning Bill. There are still examples of planning decisions taking too long. Why can more of the straightforward decisions not be taken in one month?"

CBI (NI) is part of the UK-wide organisation. In that relationship, what is the attitude in Northern Ireland to the UK debate on membership of the EU?

"We have to lobby very strongly to remain in Europe. Having a land border with another EU member, the risk is that companies planning to invest on this island, if the UK position is distanced from the EU, will not consider an investment here. We want to be in Europe," Mr Coulter said.

A final important question: how does Ian Coulter assess the merits of the debate on Scottish independence?

"It's all to play for in Scotland. My concern is how it may affect the living standards of people here," he replied. That sounds like a negative opinion on the merits of the referendum question.