No business facing issues around the NI Protocol wants it to prevent Stormont from getting up and running, a business leader has said following last week’s Assembly election.
Simon Hamilton, chief executive of Belfast Chamber and former DUP MLA and Economy Minister, said the NI Protocol was also proving to be less of a concern for businesses than it was six months ago.
He said a survey carried out by the Chamber and Belfast City Council showed many were adjusting.
But Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP – now Stormont’s second biggest party - says his party will not nominate Ministers until there is decisive action taken by the UK Government on the protocol.
Mr Donaldson said: “That was our position before the election campaign, during the election and it remains today.”
But his former party colleague Simon Hamilton said: “Certainly the protocol is the big political issue, but it has to be said many have adjusted well, others are having difficulties.
"Some have increased their turnover from the ROI market and others are stabilising. There is no doubt many are experiencing challenges and while some do accept and understand there are problems, maybe even bigger ones down the line for the protocol, none of them are saying not to have an Executive in place because of it.
"No one wants a long period of uncertainty around a whole range of issues. What members don’t want is a period without someone taking decisions that could help them in the short term."
Retail NI Chief Executive Glyn Roberts said it would be “unforgiveable” if the Executive did not reform after last week’s election, in which Sinn Fein emerged with the biggest number of seats.
He said: “The clear view of the broader business community is that an Executive needs to be formed immediately to tackle the huge challenges facing our economy and community with this cost-of-living crisis.
“To have no effective government during this crisis would be unforgivable and unacceptable.”
Mr Roberts called for “immediate discussions on an outline Programme for Government, a multi-year budget and agreement on a support package for struggling businesses” including extension of the current Rates Holiday.
“We need to get the newly elected together and working,” Mr Hamilton added.
The Stormont Executive has been unable to fully function since February when first minister Paul Givan resigned as part of the DUP’s efforts to force action against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill, who is now eligible for the First Minister role as head of the biggest party here, said: “Responsibility for finding solutions to the protocol lie with Boris Johnson and the EU. But make no mistake, we and our business community here will not be held to ransom."
In Belfast Chamber’s report there was evidence that some businesses were benefiting from the protocol, with 46% of businesses saying their turnover from the ROI market had increased in the past six months while 63% believe it will increase in the next six months.
Mr Hamilton added: “I think our message as organisation is pretty clear. We need to get the Executive back as quickly as possible. We have been saying this when it collapsed and during campaigns and our stance hasn’t changed.
“What businesses and society want are ministers around the Executive table, taking collective decisions to deal the full range of problems companies are grappling with right now and also, to get on with those positive investments that will help transform Belfast and Northern Ireland.”
Mr Hamilton said among the most pressing issues facing his members are recouping losses from the pandemic while dealing with the rising cost of energy.
He added: “We have huge challenges post pandemic and we’re in a situation where many members are trying to get back on their feet. Thankfully things are moving but there is a whole set of new challenges including the cost of living which is really biting businesses too.”
The same survey published by the Belfast City Council and Belfast Chamber showed that 95% of businesses questioned saw an increase in fuel and electric costs, 85% saw an increase in wholesale prices and a further 85% saw a rise in raw materials.
Mr Hamilton said getting ministers back to Stormont is not just about supporting the struggles of businesses here. He said it was also needed to unlock potential.
City Deal projects including the York Street Interchange and other investments will be hindered until Stormont is up and running, he said.
As a former Economy Minister who sat at Stormont back in 2016 before its collapse in 2017, Mr Hamilton said he believed everyone who was elected on Thursday wanted to do their best for their constituents.
He added: “It’s a matter for each individual party what it wants to do to get up and running again but there will have been no-one elected who is going up to Stormont today who won’t want to make life better for everyone. They all go up there with the same purpose but maybe with different perspectives.”
Reflecting on the period after he sat as Economy Minister, he added: “It was frustrating for all of us, and I know that I was frustrated that we weren’t able to get on with the challenges because we didn’t have an Executive.
“It’s frustrating for all of us now too, sitting on the cusp of extended period of uncertainty and we certainly don’t want to see a lengthy period where no decisions being made, or arrangements put in place before we get to decisions.”