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Aodhan Connolly

Brexit deal means a real glimmer of hope for progress in 2020

Aodhan Connolly

Aodhan Connolly

Let's be honest, 2019 didn't do the business world in Northern Ireland any favours. All of us were marched to the top of the hill several times as Brexit deadlines approached, only to be marched back down to uncertainty after spending millions of pounds in preparations.

The fear of no deal stifled investment and there were cost rises across business on National Living Wage and Pension Contributions. Retail was under the cosh with massive structural change, some big name casualties and of course the aftermath of the Bank Buildings fire.

But within the business community there is more than a glimmer of hope for 2020 and all because of a New Year's miracle. Over Christmas a lot of business leaders put in a lot of hours to come up with possible amendments to the Withdrawal Bill which allows Brexit to happen.

They did so because of the genuine fears that they have for their industries, the economy and for NI households. It was an amazing occurrence for business to come together with common purpose but even more astounding was the fact that all five of the major parties in NI came together and supported these amendments.

The good news continued when we were able to get an amendment selected, debated and voted upon. While we did not get it passed, 262-337 is a division of which we can be rightly proud and was the closest vote of any amendment.

This momentous occurrence where NI MPs were united in laying down an amendment that was drawn up with the NI business community must be celebrated. It is a sign of a willingness from all parties to work together to protect NI business and consumers and is to be welcomed. Our MPs have our wholehearted thanks.

The amendment to the Bill may have failed to be passed by a small margin, but a stark warning has been raised that this current protocol will have damaging effects for our households and economy. The narrative that NI is sorted has been broken.

We also have hope inspired by a rates revaluation that, although as always there were winners and losers, has set a precedent to have more frequent revaluations to allow the rates regime to flex with the economic times, something business has been asking for years and we must give thanks to the Permanent Secretary Sue Gray for her enthusiasm and leadership to make this happen.

This has all given us hope. And we even have hope we could see Stormont back up and running. If we do there are a few things the new Executive will have to do for business in the first 100 days. They will need to drive forward with a fundamental rates reform to make the system fit for purpose. We need a Shopworkers Protection Bill to give our NI colleagues the same protection as those in GB. They will need to set up a Brexit Committee to look at the effects of the Withdrawal Bill as passed, something that should have been happening for this past three years. We need reform of the Apprenticeship Levy, so it is no longer just a tax. And we need an industrial strategy and retail strategy to make sure that our economy is ready for the challenges of this new decade.

You might think that this is a tall order... but after the last few weeks I, and the NI business community, have a renewed hope that our politicians might just be able to work together and take a few bold decisions to benefit our businesses and our communities.

Aodhan Connolly is director of the NI Retail Consortium

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