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The next UK Government must do more to help Northern Ireland

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By Glyn Roberts

Sadly this Westminster election in Northern Ireland has seen little in the way of serious debate over the key economic challenges facing an incoming UK Government. Indeed with the unwelcome possibility of a period of Direct Rule, careful reading of the Conservative and Labour manifestos economic priorities is required.

Retail NI has two key policy priories for whoever has the keys to Number 10 on Friday morning.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which does not have a City Deal.

As an early priority, we want to see city deals for both Belfast and Londonderry, giving them more powers to grow their local economy and regenerate their city centres.

While the focus is rightly on restoring devolution to Stormont, we shouldn't forget our two major cities and their vital role as key economic drivers for Northern Ireland.

We could also include, as part of a City Deal, new enterprise zones in Belfast and Derry city centres, similar to the very successful Cardiff Central model.

Cardiff has undergone an impressive physical transformation and spectacular economic growth over the last 10 years to become one of the fastest growing economies in the UK. It has also had the highest growth in private sector employment within the 10 years out of all UK core cities.

Cardiff City Centre Enterprise Zone has also generated huge footfall for its retail and hospitality sectors and has had a very significant impact in reducing dereliction and shop vacancies. The other key area is developing our transport infrastructure.

Retail NI has long championed the need for a new high speed rail service between Dublin and Belfast of around one hour 20 minutes.

This is a big and bold ask, which would require funding and co-ordination of governments in London, Dublin, Belfast and likely the European Union too.

We should not forget that 70% of Northern Ireland's tourists come via the Republic and we miss out on a considerable number of high-end retail tourists who shop in Dublin and don't come north.

Having a fast and frequent rail service between Dublin and Belfast is a game changer for our whole economy in Northern Ireland, connecting the island's two largest cities and benefiting every sector of industry.

This might take 10 years to do, but there is no reason a scoping study could not be immediately commissioned as to the cost and time scale of such a project.

As we face the uncharted territory of Brexit and the prospect of some hardening of the border, this idea could address this challenge and ensure better connectivity between both parts of the island.

Retail NI will also work with our colleagues in other business groups to establish an all-party group on the Northern Ireland economy at Westminster to bring together interested MPs and peers to have a clear focus on the non-devolved economic issues that impact upon our local business community.

In March, Retail NI launched a comprehensive Programme for Government, setting out our agenda for a restored Assembly and Executive.

The next UK Government must hit the ground running with a clear agenda for the Northern Ireland economy and is vital that our business community is shaping that agenda.

  • Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI

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