Belfast Telegraph

Get us out of this quagmire now

As a new year starts with the same old political deadlock in NI, business leaders issue a stark warning to Stormont

By Margaret Canning

Northern Ireland needs a year of "change and progress" in 2018 after politicians failed to provide support to business during 2017, it has been claimed.

Ellvena Graham OBE, the president of the NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Northern Ireland needed to get out of the "quagmire" and see political and economic change during 2018.

She said last year had brought "many challenges" for members of the chamber, "not helped by the continued absence of a regional Assembly and Executive".

"Our businesses needed the support of active and engaged public representatives to boost their confidence but it wasn't there - that has to change in 2018," she added.

And Ben Turtle of commercial property agents Savills said the restoration of devolution was also need to kickstart investment.

Ms Graham said the lack of an Assembly - which has been in deep freeze since the resignation of then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness a year ago - was also robbing the province of a voice in Brexit negotiations. It was also making the lack of clarity over Brexit even more damaging.

"Sharing a land border with the EU means Northern Ireland has a crucial stake in these negotiations - yet discussions are going on without a cohesive Northern Ireland voice and that of business being heard directly.

"If we remain stuck in the quagmire of 2017, Northern Ireland's potential to become an economic powerhouse may never be realised. 2018 must be the year of change and progress - both politically and economically."

Ms Graham said that recognition of Northern Ireland's "unique" trading circumstances was crucial to a UK-EU trading deal. And a cloud would persist over business without clarity on the future trading relationship.

Already, uncertainty was "undermining many firms' investment decisions and confidence".

However, she said even the best Brexit deal "won't be worth the paper it's written on" unless Northern Ireland tackles its existing barriers to growth.

It could not continue without an Executive where NI ministers were in charge of decisions. "Businesses need the support of active and engaged public representatives to boost their confidence at this critical time," Ms Graham said.

And she said the draft economic strategy announced by then-Finance Minister Simon Hamilton last year was now "sitting on a shelf and is now covered in dust".

"The strategy must be reactivated by a new Executive as soon as one is formed," she said.

The devolution of corporation tax also needed to move forward, while other fiscal matters were also pressing, she added.

"We also look forward to air passenger duty and Vat on tourism being reviewed by the next budget in 2018 and welcome the fact negotiations and consultations are due to open on a city deal for Belfast - but this must be extended to all cities," she said.

"City deals give cities certain powers to create jobs and support economic growth. They are a boost for investment in skills, economic development and prove attractive to investors."

And transport improvements were also required. She said Belfast's new rapid transit scheme, due to be introduced in September, should help ease congestion.

And Ms Graham also called for progress on other road projects - while the green light on the North South Interconnector should be given by the Department for Infrastructure "as soon as possible".

She added: "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."

The Planning Appeals Commission gave its recommendation on whether the interconnector should go ahead to the department late last year. However, the nature of the recommendation has not been disclosed.

Belfast Telegraph

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