Commerce chief on challenges of returning to Northern Ireland - ‘I found it difficult to move from a peaceful English life to a life here’
Ann McGregor, who’s been chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry for a decade now, talks about the challenges of Brexit, the lack of an Assembly, and returning to NI after years spent in England.
Q. Is the uncertainty around Brexit unprecedented in your business career?
A. I joined the Chamber in 2008, just when the financial crisis started, becoming a global financial crisis which then did damage to countries, property and to the status of the euro. It impacted on everybody who had a house. People were left with negative equity, people were left with no homes. Organisations like Lehman Brothers that you thought of as totally resilient failed. So I think that crisis was pretty major and I'm not quite sure if Brexit is there yet. But Brexit is undoubtedly a big issue for this island, mainly for trade. We have all-Ireland supply chains and it could be extremely damaging for the whole agri-food sector and trade in general.
Q. What is the main distinction between that crisis and where we are now?
A. Back then we knew it was a crisis, everybody knew we needed to get out of it and there were actions taken.
There was unanimous opinion, basically. With Brexit, it's really challenging because there isn't unanimous opinion.
Q. What's the big difference between then and now as far as Northern Ireland is concerned?
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A. What I think Brexit has done, it has brought a big crisis to government in Britain and it's damaging Anglo-Irish relationships and relations between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Queen visited Ireland in 2012 and the Irish President visited England and was invited to Windsor Castle. I attended that element of the visit. It was transformational, because you were in Windsor Castle with the likes of Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson. There was a real step forward for those relationships. I am nostalgic for those days. We had a working Executive, we had a united front to the world, no matter what it was like here. The parties all had their own issues here, but externally we had a united front.
Q. What did you think of the deal Theresa May reached with the EU, which was later rejected by MPs and strongly opposed by the DUP?
A. While the deal wasn't perfect, it was the best deal for trade and had our support. So we actually did step up. It was the first time you had over 20 business groups, including the four nationally-recognised business organisations (Chamber, FSB, CBI and Institute of Directors) plus the trade associations all 100% agreed.
Q. An organisation like the Chamber has always seemed to have a good relationship with the parties in power, particularly the DUP, which rejected the withdrawal agreement. What was it like to oppose the DUP on the subject of the agreement?
A. I think Brexit has been one of the biggest challenges. We would see the DUP as the party that was more pro-business than any other over the years. They were the party which for many years headed government departments like Enterprise, (now the Department of the Economy), Finance, and Environment, or as it is now, the Department for Infrastructure. They would be seen as business-friendly and they were the first movers on the campaign to bring our rate of corporation tax down and into line with the 12.5% rate in the Republic. This current situation, where the different political parties are taking totally different stances, is challenging for business. Across the whole of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Brexit is not an economic decision. It seems to be a political decision. In England it's been about sovereignty. In NI it's about sovereignty. It's political, rather than economic or social.
Q. You're from Limavady. What was your upbringing like?
A. I'm one of 10, including two who died in infancy. Of eight of us who grew up in Limavady, I was fifth, and of the 10, I was sixth.
My mother Mary Boyle was from Bunbeg in Donegal. She was a native Gaelic speaker, but when she was a young girl came up to work in Derry and came to work in someone's house as what we would now call an au pair. But she didn't speak Gaelic when she was there and for all her life, as Gaelic was seen as as a sign of poverty. She spoke English and never spoke Gaelic to us.
It's quite interesting for me now to see the whole growth of Gaelic. I'm nearly embarrassed now that I don't have any Gaelic, despite being brought up by a native Irish speaker. My father Alex was one of about half-a-dozen men from the village of Drumsurn who joined the Merchant Navy and he went on to become a chief engineer in the Merchant Navy.
Q. Were politics or religion ever discussed in the house when you were growing up?
A. My dad was working for a British company and my mother was from the south, we were brought up a very integrated household and never spoke about religion or politics. We were integrated before integrated became fashionable. They were both Catholics, but they just didn't get involved in Irish politics. My dad was travelling the world working for a British company and my mother was from Donegal. They had no axe to grind. We went to Limavady Grammar School so we were integrated all our life. We had a very balanced, integrated upbringing.
Q. What was it like growing up with seven siblings?
A. You always got a lot of attention and it never felt like you were a big crowd. My parents always emphasised education. We always had to work hard at school. In Donegal, where my mother was from, they were really into education in a big way. We really had to do the best we could at school. My father used to ask us our tables repeatedly. The message always was work hard, education is the only way to get on.
Q. How did your career develop after you studied at Queen's?
A. When I graduated with history and politics I did a post-graduate management course and ended up in production management. I started out in Warne Surgical Products in Lurgan as a production planner. I then went to England and worked in Birds General Foods in Banbury in Oxfordshire, in a big production unit which made Bird's Custards and Maxwell House coffee. My job was to bring in materials. If you didn't have the materials there, the factory didn't work, basically. Then I went into economic development and social enterprise. That was because when I came back to Northern Ireland in the 1990s, it was a time when there were no jobs in industry and the economy was very weak, By then I had my two daughters, Amanda (32) and Sarah (29).
Q. How did you and your husband meet?
A. I met my husband Paul Sistern through mutual friends in a pub. He was friends with a guy from Limavady called Michael Tierney. When I went to London we went up to Banbury for the weekend and we met Paul in the pub. We got married within 13 months. It was mad. We met on June 18 and got married on August 13 the following year. And we've been married 35 years.
Q. Have your career achievements made you a good role model for your daughters?
A. Apparently I've been very demanding! When I was younger I lacked confidence. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I started out in production because it just happened, then I came home to Northern Ireland and got into economic development, because it just happened - whereas I would be encouraging them to have more of a career plan. But I also really encouraged them to think they are good enough now and as good as anybody else. Quite often, women's barriers are themselves. Sometimes they think that someone better than them does something, rather than people like them.
Q. What was it like to move home to Northern Ireland in the 1990s?
A. The reason we moved back here was because my husband bought into a business here. I didn't want to come. We came on the basis that if we sold our house we'd come and if we didn't, we wouldn't. It was literally the toss of a coin. So we sold our house in a place called Bourne End in Buckinghamshire within days. We moved then to Co Armagh. And the first night when we got here I went out to get something from the backyard and there were men with guns walking out the back streets, and I realised they were soldiers. I found it difficult to move back from a peaceful English life to a life here. But now I just love it. I think Belfast is a great place to live and work. I think in business everyone is very mixed, very ambitious for their businesses.
Q. How do you unwind?
A. We moved to Belfast from Limavady about four years ago and every Saturday my husband and I go wandering, basically. My husband loves craft beer so we go to places where there is craft beer and nice food. We're enjoying life and all that Belfast has to offer and living up this way now means we can walk most places we want to go. I love the sea and I go up home to Limavady for the odd fix of Downhill Beach. I love the rocks under Mussenden Temple. And I loved Roe Valley Country Park, it's gorgeous too.
Q. Who was your biggest role model?
A. I do think my mum was. You can name all these famous people when it comes to role models, but my mother was just a kind, fair person. Mammy always taught you to turn the other cheek. I've never fallen out with anybody, no matter how bad they are; I never fall out with them because you just move on. You don't know when you'll meet people again and what situations you'll meet them in, so just always be professional. My mother never held a grudge. She didn't have to score points, you just move on. And I think that's useful in business, you just move on.
Q. We're now into our third year without an Executive. Are you disappointed in the political parties?
A. Completely and utterly shocked that it's gone on so long. This is the longest that it's ever gone on. It's such a vital time for the economy.
Q. What do you think is the problem? Do they need some of the can-do attitude of business?
A. I think our d'Hondt system (which allocates ministries to parties on a cross-community basis based on the results of an Assembly election) probably needs some sort of review so that when they come back they can make decisions for the best of social and economic life.
We always get the best compromise, rather than the best decision. We'd hoped after 20 years we would have had a maturer government that was able to step on and move on from the d'Hondt system. It obviously shows that even after 20 years we haven't matured enough in government. This will drive them (the parties) crazy - but we'll probably need another 20 years before they will learn to trust each other. But it would be helpful if they were back in there in Stormont now.
Business is totally and utterly frustrated. Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness issued a joint letter at the start of the Brexit process, but we haven't had another joint letter since then. It's not just Brexit, though. It is around migration, it is around delivering the Programme for Government and improving productivity and also representing us on the world stage. We used to have a united front, across the world, and we're heading to another St Patrick's Day without someone representing us in the States.
Q. Have you any extra-curricular interests?
A. I'm on the Senate at Queen's, and I'm deputy chair of the Grand Opera House. What I like about those is that it helps you learn from another sector and realise that there's more to the world than you and business. I think the Opera House is a fantastic asset for Northern Ireland and they're working really hard to make sure the wider community has opportunities to engage with it. It's a really well-run business.