Lack of decisions driving Northern Ireland under, says lobby group
The Northern Ireland economy needs the "big ticket decisions" to be taken in the absence of a devolved government, even if it means direct rule, a business lobby group has said.
Business lobby groups gave written evidence to a hearing of the NI Affairs Committee at Stormont into the impact of the absence of an Executive.
Hospitality Ulster chief Colin Neill; Seamus McAleavey, chief executive of voluntary sector organisation Nicva; David Fry of the Construction Employers Federation and Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, were among those who made submissions.
Speaking afterwards, Mr McAleavey said: "A return to an Executive and working Assembly is the best option. But in the absence of agreement we need to have a government decision-making process. Somebody needs to move things on. The Secretary of State (Karen Bradley) will have to think of how that is done, whether it is direct rule or anything else she wants to do. The last year has meant NI treading water and we are beginning to go under."
He said major policy changes such as the Transforming Your Care plan to improve the health service were at a standstill as the Department of Health had no Minister to order policy decisions. "Work has been done but it then reaches the stage where decisions need to be taken by ministers. Civil servants have no authority to change policy and can only work in line with existing policy." But he said any agreement must be a lasting one. "A sticking plaster won't do. There is no point in an agreement that would all come apart in a few months' time.
"A change of behaviour and culture is needed so that there can be a Programme for Government that all parties can commit to deliver on. They need to act collegiately and can't be disparate and fighting with each other. If they cannot agree to get that in place, we need something in the meantime to make the normal political decisions to be taken to allow civil servants and public servants to do what needs to be done. That could mean direct rule or an election or it could be a range of things."
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, said the briefing paper on the NI Budgetary Outlook - presented in December by civil servants to give a range of budget scenarios - could mean measures which hit the high street, such as higher business rates and car parking charges, and the abolition of the small business rates relief scheme.
"That will do damage to our high streets and town centres. The lack of government and decisions not being taken is having an impact because no-one is making big decisions. Our preference will always be devolution and locally-accountable devolved administrators. But at some point, decisions will need to be made. And it if needs to be direct rule ministers, so be it."
Northern Ireland has been without an Executive and devolved ministers for over a year.
Mr Roberts said it was having a particularly acute effect on the Department for Infrastructure and its ability to make decisions on road repair and bus services to rural towns.
"We need to see a deal in current political talks and we need to see devolution restored. Northern Ireland deserves a lot more than emergency budget provisions." He said it was "ironic" that the only committee to be held in Stormont was a hearing of a House of Commons committee.
He added: "This would not happen in any other part of the UK. A region within the UK has gone without effective government for more than a year.
"What message does that send out to the wider world?"