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Our politicians need to put the country first

By Nigel Smyth

Since the referendum result was announced, the CBI has spoken to hundreds of its members - and there are high levels of real and very genuine concern from businesses of all sizes, in all sectors, up and down the country and across Northern Ireland.

There are many questions to answer. And this is a time when information really matters.

Last week in London the CBI joined 35 other business organisations in a meeting with business secretary Sajid Javid, to start what will be a crucial dialogue with the UK government.

This was a first step to understanding the government's priorities and making business priorities known. It was needed to get a sense of where the required leadership will be coming from.

In Northern Ireland we had a similar meeting with the Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir, to outline the need for local political leadership, identify local priorities and potential early actions, and we have also had a meeting with senior civil servants in the Department for the Economy.

Several key themes emerged from the business leaders - not least the shared depth of concern. But there was also recognition that business, including the thousands of businesses in Northern Ireland, needed to get on with it, think practically and find solutions.

But for them to do that, we demanded a clear and vocal commitment that the UK is still open for business, as an outward facing country and a successful trading nation. We need a period of over-communication with partners all over the world to ensure that message is heard.

Nationally and in Northern Ireland we called for commitment to develop a plan around what kind of deal we could have, based on principles of ongoing access to the single market, to skills and to free trade agreements with other countries. We stressed the importance of local political leadership that can provide clarity rather than add to uncertainty.

From a Northern Ireland perspective a particular focus will be needed on maintaining a 'soft' border with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland to ensure we continue to secure unhindered movement of people and goods, while also ensuring the interests of our large agri-food sector are protected.

We urged the Finance Minister to get on with major infrastructure projects, like the A5 and A6. They signal confidence, they create jobs and they will show we have command.

And time and time again came the repeated call that government needed to recognise how scared EU migrants working in Northern Ireland feel about the situation they now find themselves in, worried for their jobs and the lives they have made here. They need security and reassurance - and they need it fast. We believe the Northern Ireland Executive should issue a statement this week to confirm they will do everything to ensure that non-UK nationals working here will be entitled to remain.

The issue of EU funding also featured prominently - with Northern Ireland receiving around £380m last year it will be essential to secure commitments from the UK government that this funding will continue once the UK leaves the EU. In the short term it is also vital that we accelerate and streamline existing approval processes.

We must have progress on a plan for what happens next and for the new economic relationships that the UK needs. And that plan must respect how Northern Ireland and the other devolved nations voted.

Never has there been a more important time to put the interests of the country ahead of party politics.

By Nigel Smyth, regional director of the CBI Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph

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