Politicians from all the major political parties, including the DUP, recognise the competitive advantages of Northern Ireland’s access to both the GB and EU markets, according to the Belfast-born head of the Confederation of British Industry.
No-one disagrees the region will remain part of the two jurisdictions for trading purposes, said Tony Danker, in Belfast for talks with businesses and politicians amid continuing political turmoil over the NI Protocol.
“I am not a political negotiator, I am not trying to drive a political agreement,” said 50-year-old Mr Danker, originally from the Antrim Road area.
“My conversations with the DUP and Sinn Fein tell me that they recognise that there is a great amount of economic value and competitiveness to be had from being part of the dual markets,” Mr Danker told the Belfast Telegraph.
“Northern Ireland has always moved forward, achieved peace and prosperity when it has been pragmatic. It has always done so.
“From my conversations with the politicians I don’t hear anything other than a desire to be pragmatic about this in the end.
“I think that pragmatically it is true to say that these six counties, this country of Northern Ireland, will be in trading terms inside both jurisdictions.
“The major political sides in this country and in London and Brussels accept that Northern Ireland is going to remain part of two trading jurisdictions.
“My experience of talking to the politicians is that they recognise that is a trading advantage and a competitive advantage to Northern Ireland.”
And, Mr Danker added, the region needs the advantage “because of the headwinds they face because of the Northern Irish political system and because of the lower levels of tax in the south.”
He believes the region should be allowed to go it alone on lowering corporation tax, due to rise from 19 to 25% from next April.
Mr Danker told the Treasury the increase, from the CBI point of view, was bad enough in Great Britain but the effect in Northern Ireland will be profound even if the Republic increases its rate from 12.5% to 15%, as expected.
"I don’t know much has happened since then but I don’t think anybody can doubt that we now have Northern Irish business put at a competitive disadvantage by UK Government on corporation tax. It is so clearly true,” he said.
Mr Danker, appointed in late 2020 as head of the organisation claiming to represent 190,000 businesses, has worked in both business and government during his career, including as international director for Guardian News and Media and a policy adviser to the Treasury.
The business leader, educated at Belfast Royal Academy, the University of Manchester and Harvard, said it is hard to operate a business here.
“Because on the one hand you have got a world of political instability which we see right now with the Executive not forming and that is not good for business. You have also got levels of taxation… that are far higher than the South,” he said.
But businesses do now have dual access, Mr Danker added.
“For many businesses, it is working. They are enjoying that advantage. That is happening and that is real.”
But there are problems, including the extent of customs checks and “the fact that the Europeans are applying the ‘at risk’ consideration far too strictly and unreasonably”.
“These are real concerns. It strikes me on both sides of the political debate people are cherry picking their own stories about the Protocol,” he said.
“So you will have some of the Europeans (saying) the Protocol works brilliantly for the following businesses and the British Government says...works terribly for these businesses.”
But everyone wants it to work and it is working, he said, adding it “needs some improvement”.
“And if you look at that landing zone it is eminently doable.”
Mr Danker wants businesses to be at the table to help with solutions to any technical problems that arise around the customs issues.
He believes the UK does want to continue to negotiate with the EU rather than move ahead with legislation.
"I understand why the Europeans need to protect the integrity of the single market but I think strict application of rules that create unnecessarily high levels of friction and in turn political instability are not helpful," said Mr Danker.
But on London introducing legislation to bypass certain aspects of the Protocol, he added: “I believe unilateralism is unhelpful. I think it fails to build trust and I think there is enough mistrust as a result of events of the last six years that I don’t think it is helpful.”
On the cost of living crisis, Mr Danker said there is not much government can do about the global issues, including the snarling of supply chains and higher energy prices, that are driving inflation, but that it has to help those hardest hit while at the same time supporting business confidence.
He does not support windfall taxes, arguing that the problem with them in commodity markets is that “we don’t bail out these companies when… prices goes down”.
"Nor do I think we should excess tax them when the price goes up,” he added.
"What is deeply worrying about the rumours today and which the Government has not denied is that they are discussing the windfall tax (on)… electricity companies and also renewable energy companies.
“That is simply not acceptable, that is just a backward step when it comes to growth, investment and a green economy.”