Belfast Telegraph

EU vote should not stop Northern Ireland from growing economy, says CBI chief

By John Mulgrew

Northern Ireland must work to transform its economy and aim to create thousands of new jobs despite ongoing uncertainty over Brexit, an industry expert has warned.

CBI chairman David Gavaghan was speaking to more than 500 business leaders during a lunch at Titanic Belfast yesterday, which featured Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary as its guest speaker.

"Regardless of the uncertainty caused by the EU referendum, we need to transform our economy and work doubly hard to create more than 50,000 new jobs over the next five years," Mr Gavaghan said.

"To do this, we must demonstrate ambition and a new-found focus on delivery."

Speaking about Danske Bank chief economist Angela McGowan, who will soon replace former CBI director Nigel Smyth in the role, he added: "I think both our organisations will gain with Angela's appointment".

He said several key areas needed to be tackled in Northern Ireland, including the low rate of productivity.

"However, the good thing is we know what we need to do," he said. "The most important driver of a region's productivity is the skill levels of its school-leavers. Good results at 16 equals good productivity within a region.

"Therefore, to have a successful economy and greater social justice, we must improve educational outcomes.

"The issues resulting from the EU referendum every day reveal ever more complexity - for example, the state of origin rules, energy regulations, even defining the circuitous phrase 'Brexit means Brexit'".

Mr Gavaghan added that the decision to leave the EU "was not Northern Ireland's decision". "Whatever the outcome of that might be, and currently none of us know what the detail might be, nor how the rest of the EU might respond, it is now up to all of us to work together to make the best of this decision," he said.

He said major questions still remained, including whether the UK can hold on to some form of free trade with the EU, and what can be done to ensure that funding is not lost.

"The added burden for our politicians, civil servants and businesses as they seek to understand the potential implications of our future relationship with the rest of Europe is currently impossible to estimate," he said.

"Regardless though of this backdrop, we must keep our focus on the existing challenges and opportunities facing our domestic economy if we are going to improve the lives of our citizens."

In his speech, Michael O'Leary said the UK would get "screwed" in the Brexit negotiations. "Nobody in the airline industry knows what the outcome of Brexit is, which puts us in exactly the same situation as most of the Cabinet of the Government of the UK, since they haven't a clue either," he said.

He said Ryanair intended to pivot business away from the UK as the carrier waited to see the outworking of Brexit.

Belfast Telegraph