Belfast Telegraph

Chamber chief John Healy warns that Stormont deadlock could lead to economic decline

John Healy
John Healy
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Northern Ireland's political leaders have been urged to "stretch themselves" for a compromise which will restore devolution.

The NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry urged the parties to work to restore the institutions on a credible and long-term basis as they resume talks today.

Chamber president John Healy said urgent action was needed to reinvigorate the economy and take key infrastructure decisions.

He said the economy was likely to deteriorate over the next few months, partly due to the lack of an Executive.

Decisions which needed to be taken included those of infrastructure, such as the appointment of a contractor for the York Street Interchange project.

And Mr Healy said the North South Interconnector, which is intended to provide security of electricity supply, should also get the go-ahead. No decision has been made on the project because of the absence of an Infrastructure Minister since the Assembly collapsed three years ago.

"Businesses and employers need access to electricity in the most cost efficient manner possible, and a positive decision on the proposed Interconnector is key to achieving this," Mr Healy said.

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A devolved government was necessary to ensure Northern Ireland's voice was heard in negotiations over a future trading agreement between the UK and the EU, Mr Healy said.

And he warned that the UK was only at the beginning of the Brexit process, with a no-deal still a possibility.

"The election result has provided the Prime Minister with a strong mandate for his Brexit deal, which will therefore likely be voted through later this month. However, this is only the beginning of a process rather than the end.

"Getting the detail of Brexit right is far more important than simply getting it done.

"Vital details still need to be negotiated with the EU around future trade arrangements and unless a comprehensive UK-EU trade agreement is in place by the end of next year, businesses could once again face a cliff-edge, and seismic changes to trading conditions equivalent to a no-deal exit."

He urged the new UK Government to work to avoid a messy exit from the EU, "and to give businesses the clear, detailed information that they require to navigate the coming changes".

Mr Healy, who is also the head of IT company Allstate, said members of the Chamber need confidence, which would have to start with "a shift in tone from our leaders, away from the politics that hindered 2019".

"The Brexit uncertainty, when added to the damage caused by the lack of an Executive at Stormont, means the local economy is also likely to deteriorate in the months ahead. Government must therefore move fast to boost the confidence of businesses, consumers and investors.

"Businesses need to see immediate, substantial action to reinvigorate our stagnant economy, build new infrastructure, boost skills and lower the cost of doing business in 2020.

"We need an end to vague pronouncements, and a renewed focus on the details that matter."

An Executive was needed to take decisions now.

"This is a time when we need mature leadership - leaders with vision and a willingness to compromise and help navigate the path to the future," he added.

"NI Chamber and the businesses we represent will offer every support to all political representatives as the talks continue. Our leaders must stretch themselves to reach a compromise and see the institutions restored on a credible and long-term basis.

"We look forward to working with future ministers as they begin to address the damage caused by three years of paralysis at Stormont."

He urged a future Executive to address the skills shortage in Northern Ireland, which he said was exacerbated by a cap on students. And while the apprenticeship levy had been in force for three years, the funds raised by the levy had still not been allocated here.

The shortage would also benefit from clarity on future immigration arrangements into the UK, which the Government has said would resemble the Australian points-based system. "Also, at a time of critical recruitment shortages, an Immigration Bill that allows businesses to recruit staff at all skill levels cannot be delivered soon enough. Westminster should waste no time in providing detail on the proposed points-based system, and must not lumber firms with costly delays or red tape."

Belfast Telegraph