Trade NI's pragmatic approach towards economic policy
Re-setting the parameters for economic policy in Northern Ireland is an emerging challenge. Brexit, one way or another, will be implemented and normal, or conventional, tests of Government policy will come to the top of a reset agenda.
Of course, there will be a series of Brexit consequences, some with negative effects, which will add to the evolving agenda.
A new organisation, Trade NI, has entered this policy arena. Joining the well-established corps of interest groups, Trade NI broadens the effective voice of business interests, bringing a pragmatic and disciplined approach to the challenging agenda.
The alliance between Manufacturing NI, Retail NI and Hospitality Ulster should add relevance and gravitas to the debate and, in a constructive addition, supplement the efforts of the other business-related organisations, such as the CBI, IoD, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) and Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).
For the benefit of the local economy, these business representative bodies now have the clout to make compelling arguments on critical issues.
Constructive co-operation will be at a premium. Divergent views would risk being counter-productive.
Trade NI has an ambitious agenda. The leaders of the three principal units - Stephen Kelly, Glyn Roberts and Colin Neill - expect that "Trade NI will seek to give leadership on behalf of our three sectors and provide new policy solutions to creating a modern local economy".
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
There is no dispute that Northern Ireland needs well-targeted recommendations for action to enhance the local economy. Simply hectoring or 'shouting at Government' must give way to prioritised action.
As Trade NI has suggested, "any incoming NI Executive must set out to increase the productivity of the NI workforce; reduce the regulatory burden on business; increase the skills base; and deliver a clear economic strategy".
The challenge is to devise operational ideas which can be delivered both by the business organisations themselves and by the NI Executive.
The new agenda will differ significantly from the issues that were relevant three years ago, before the Executive collapsed.
A revisited Programme for Government will be needed by a revitalised Executive or, if there is no new Executive, by a civil service answering to the Secretary of State.
Critically, the underpinning of economic policy must refresh the analysis and map out a series of policies giving clear priorities.
Superficially, in one major change, it looks as if the recurring problem of creating more jobs has eased.
Northern Ireland, in parallel with the UK, is enjoying very low levels of unemployment. That achievement is remarkable.
However, it would be careless to assume that generating higher employment was a problem completely solved.
In the remaining months of 2019 there is a concern that the jobs market will deteriorate, partly as a response to business decisions when the Brexit timetable is confirmed.
More significantly, while unemployment has fallen, the changing labour market merits careful analysis.
The direct policy focus must be to consider how to narrow the overall average earnings gap between Northern Ireland and the UK.
Less directly, and less easily amenable to policy changes in both jurisdictions, there should be a continuing interest in the north-south earnings differences on this island.
In short, policy needs to move from the simple 'get more jobs' initiatives to setting the environment for leverage on incentives to attract businesses which generate higher value added and, as a consequence, offer improved earnings prospects.
There may be a 'chicken and egg' dilemma in this process.
Do existing businesses offer an attractive example of a potentially profitable environment to encourage new investors?
Recent evidence on the business environment shows that the more successful local businesses are trading successfully.
A list showing the Top 100 local family-owned companies has shown significant gains in the last three years, although more recently, in 2018, the improvement seems to have slowed.
Nevertheless, there are over 100 locally owned businesses which most recently recorded pre-tax profits of over £2m. Success would lie in doubling that outcome.