Belfast Telegraph

Aodhan Connolly: Manifestos of Tories, Labour and Lib Dems 'leave lot to be desired for Northern Ireland'

Conservative leader Boris Johnson
Conservative leader Boris Johnson
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn

By Aodhan Connolly, Director of the NI Retail Consortium

The general election high drama is truly upon us and while the majority of folk here are focused on the local party manifestos, the business community has been mulling over what the Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives' great plans mean for Northern Ireland.

All have made sure to mention that restoring devolution is a priority, but none of them go so far as to tell us what they would do to get Stormont back up and running, or whether direct rule is an option to take some of the mission critical decisions that business needs.

The truth is that the longer we are without an Executive, the further we fall behind our neighbours to the east and to the south.

The parties are right to have the restoration of devolution as an imperative, but we must have action and not just political thoughts and prayers.

On Brexit, written boldly across the Conservative manifesto, is the mantra Get Brexit Done.

They state they will not be asking for an extension of the transition period past December 2020. This is cause for concern as most trade experts are confounded as to how to get a working Free Trade Agreement in such a short time and the manifesto gives no detail as to the nature of this agreement, barebones, patchwork agreement or otherwise.

It says Northern Ireland will reap the benefits of Brexit and businesses will have unfettered access to the Great Britain market.

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Tellingly and worryingly for our retail industry, it does not give the same guarantees for goods going to Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Labour has a bit more detail on how it will ensure there is no hard border nor regulatory border down the Irish Sea.

They will implement a UK wide customs union with close regulatory alignment, though it remains to be seen if this could get through Parliament.

The Lib Dems, however, want to stop Brexit altogether by revoke or a people's vote, both a huge ask in the current climate.

On the wider economy, the greatest amount of detail comes from Labour who promise Northern Ireland £1.9bn to "end austerity and rebuild public services", though it is not clear whether this is new money, part of Barnett consequentials, or from elsewhere.

Their rise in minimum wage in such a short space of time will put employers, small and large, under pressure and many are nervous as to where the money for their proposed spending will come from. However, they have given a pledge for a retail strategy - something we would like to see replicated here.

The Tories are similarly vague in their promises to improve infrastructure, enterprise and reduce public sector dependency.

Nice words but how will they deliver this both in monetary terms and given the fact that these are devolved competencies?

No income tax, VAT or National Insurance rises will be well received by business. The Tories are also keen to devolve the responsibility for corporation tax and Air Passenger Duty which, while welcome, is not a key priority for many here given that for every pound that retailers spend on corporation tax, we spend over £2.30 on business rates.

And the vagueness continues with the Lib Dems who aim to help to grow the economy in Northern Ireland, boost infrastructure and support local businesses but with absolutely no detail, however, their 20% rise for zero hours workers will certainly put pressure on businesses.

I may want to get a shiny new car but unless I plan, save and take action nothing happens. That's why our retail manifesto keeps it realistic, simple and deliverable. Not just in Northern Ireland but across the UK we want to see reform of the outdated business rates regime that stifles investment.

We want to see barriers removed to accessing the Apprenticeship Levy and to be able to provide more upskilling for our colleagues and most of all we want to protect hardworking shopworkers by bringing forward legislation to safeguard the 115 retail workers who are attacked every day.

Political parties must think like industry and have costed plans that make a tangible difference.

For Northern Ireland business these manifestos leave a lot to be desired.

Belfast Telegraph

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