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We need clarity to plan for Brexit, says new boss of business group

Chamber of Commerce leader also urges green light for stalled projects

John Healy
John Healy
Ellvena Graham

By Margaret Canning, business editor

The new year must bring clarity to business to avoid a "messy or disorderly" Brexit, according to the new head of the NI Chamber of Commerce.

John Healy, who succeeds Ellvena Graham as president of one of our most important business bodies, also called on politicians to put their "political games to bed" during 2019.

The last few months of 2018 were marked by clashes between the commercial sector and DUP politicians as businesses welcomed the Prime Minister's Brexit agreement, while Arlene Foster's party led the way in political opposition to the deal.

Mr Healy said Northern Ireland had been at the heart of the political drama at Westminster last year.

But the IT boss, whose company Allstate employs more than 2,000 people here, said businesses had not been able to plan ahead for 2019 because of the "ominous threat" of Brexit and the lack of an Executive.

This month marks the start of the third year in which there has been no devolved administration after the institutions collapsed in January 2017.

Last year Mr Healy's predecessor hit out at the "quagmire" of stalled politics here.

Mr Healy said that "2018 has been a year of many challenges for the local business community, with the continuing absence of the NI Executive and the ever more ominous threat of Brexit".

"The backstop, re-elections, votes of confidence (or lack of) were among the words making their way across news sources in the UK and even globally," he added.

"And Northern Ireland was, and still is, centre stage.

"What this means for our members is that they now enter 2019 having not been able to plan ahead for the year due to the ongoing political uncertainty at Westminster."

But he said we could regain control of at least some important matters if the Executive was restored.

He said there were a number of important infrastructure projects which could move forward if the Assembly was operational and ministers were in place to make decisions. At the moment, civil servants do not have the power to make decisions on major planning applications.

That has held up developments, including the North South Interconnector, stretching from Co Armagh to Co Meath, which is intended to improve security of electricity supply.

Other stalled projects detailed by Mr Healy include "the much needed Belfast Transport Hub, further investment projects in the Harbour area, including Grade A office space for inward investors, a new power station and cruise ship terminal, and the rollout of super-fast broadband".

He added: "It is now time to put political games to bed.

"As a business organisation we want to see an outcome that's best for businesses, for consumers, for the economy and for the future stability of Northern Ireland. Firms are still in the dark as to what trading conditions they will face. Neither the country nor businesses are prepared for a no-deal Brexit, so parliamentarians on all sides must redouble efforts to ensure that we don't face this scenario by default."

He said that addressing a shortage of skilled workers was also a priority and that local firms needed continued access to workers from Europe.

A proposal for potential migrants to be placed in jobs earning at least £30,000 before being allowed into the UK was unworkable here, where salaries were usually lower, he said.

"In a post-Brexit scenario, businesses need to see a regional approach to the proposed minimum salary threshold for migrant workers. A £30,000 minimum would cut off the supply of much-needed workers for Northern Ireland," he added.

Belfast Telegraph