Belfast Telegraph

'Who is in charge of Northern Ireland - it's a good question,' says business boss in hard-hitting speech

NI Chamber President Ellvena Graham speaking at the NI Chamber Annual Lunch at Belfast City Hall. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
NI Chamber President Ellvena Graham speaking at the NI Chamber Annual Lunch at Belfast City Hall. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Around 500 guests from the world of business have gathered at Belfast City Hall for the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry annual lunch.

Chamber President Ellvena Graham OBE has welcomed guests including Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey and  Daniel Lawton, the outgoing US Consul General, as well as special guest, former Editor of the Sunday Times.  . 

Ms Graham said: “We’ve come a long way from the days when timid reporters used to ask,

‘Prime Minister, is there anything you’d like to tell us?’

Although I suspect there are an awful lot of politicians out there who wish

those days were back!

Andrew, we’re delighted to have you with us and we look forward to hearing from you later.”

She adds: “It’s a great honour to have been asked to remain as President.

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Pictured at the Presidents Annual Lunch which took place at Belfast City Hall earlier today are (L-R) NI Chamber President Ellvena Graham; BBC broadcaster and media guru Andrew Neil, BT Managing Director Colm ONeill and NI Chamber Chief Executive Ann McGregor. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

For me - I couldn’t have had a better year than the one I’ve just spent in this role.

It’s been absolutely fascinating, a real journey of discovery. I’ve learned so much about individual businesses and what a success story they are.

NI Chamber is really focused on promoting these great businesses in order to inspire more of them to grow and have the confidence to enter international markets.

There is no doubt, because of our innovation and quality we can offer great value and service across the world.

But we’ve got to keep on spreading the word about business and everything else that this country of ours has to offer and we’ve got to use every platform that’s available to us.

A group of 30 international journalists were here recently to see what’s been happening since the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

They saw for themselves how, over the past 20 years, we’ve become a real contender as a global tourism attraction. They were very positive in their reporting.

More and more cruise ships are coming up Belfast Lough.

Lonely Planet has listed this city as the No. 1 destination for 2018.

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Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 15th June 2018 - NI Chamber Presidents Annual Lunch, supported by NI Chambers Communications Partner BT and supporting sponsors Cleaver Fulton Rankin and Dell EMC. NI Chamber President Ellvena Graham speaking at the NI Chamber Annual Lunch at Belfast City Hall earlier today. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

And major conferences are being held here – like the Royal College of Nursing Congress a few weeks ago with 5000 delegates down at the Waterfront.

We’re bringing visitors in but at the same time we’re exporting something very precious – our image and our reputation.

It’s a very different image from the one we used to have.

Northern Ireland is more prosperous and innovative. It’s ambitious and competitive.

It’s a small country but a heavy hitter on the global stage. It’s a great place in which to live and work.

But I’m sorry to say that we’re still making headlines for less positive reasons.

A few weeks ago, the front page of the Belfast Telegraph asked the question – Just who is in charge of Northern Ireland?  It’s a good question!!!

Since the Executive collapsed a year and a half ago we’ve been stuck in a no-man’s land somewhere between devolution and direct rule with the Civil Service shouldering all the responsibility. Now even that arrangement is up in the air.

Last month Northern Ireland Chamber was among 12 business organisations who wrote to the Secretary of State urging her to end the legal confusion that currently exists, asking her to consider special legislative measures to allow senior civil servants to take important decisions.

Decisions for the benefit of us all.

Because something needs to be done soon!!

Just look at some of the projects that could be left in limbo

- the North-South interconnector,

- the upgrade of the A5,

- Belfast power station,

- the £150m ultra-fast broadband project ….

…..each of these of vital importance to the business community and to Northern Ireland as a whole.

But this would be merely a stop-gap arrangement. We must also look long term.

We need to see more energy and more willingness being injected into the efforts to restore devolution.

We need political stability and we need it today just as much as we ever did.

We need our political representatives to be focused on the future, not the past.

We need them to be our standard-bearers, particularly in this crucial period as we move closer towards Brexit.

But we must also get the message out that while our political process may be gripped by paralysis, the rest of Northern Ireland is not.  We’re very much open for business.

In the past year, I’ve experienced the fantastic diversity, innovation and enthusiasm that our Chamber represents.

Companies large and small, working in every sector. People running businesses I’d never heard of - in every corner of the country - all of them doing great things.

And there is significant export success – export is growing. It’s our strong belief that the export market is the key to growth for Northern Ireland firms. And many of them are showing the way. For example:

Devenish Nutrition here in Belfast – producing animal foods and nutrients and exporting to 35 countries, with major success in Turkey, the Middle East and West Africa.

Heavenly Tasty Organics, based in Augher – sending baby foods which are low in sugar to the Middle East.

TG Eakin of Comber – Manufacturing and developing stoma and wound care dressings. Exporting to 40 countries and transforming the lives of many people around the world.

Clonallon Laboratories at Warrenpoint – Producing medical instrument packs for operating theatres. Doing business in the Republic of Ireland, Malta, Switzerland, the Middle East, South Africa and Iceland. AND

Smiley Monroe of Lisburn – Making conveyor belts and rubber parts for the mobile crushing and recycling sectors. Exporting to 40 countries.

What fantastic innovation all of this represents.

Selling beyond the home market is about to get a lot more complicated, whatever way the Brexit negotiations pan out, but here we have examples of companies who are ready, willing and able to face the challenge. And there are many more like them.

It’s a great privilege to be President of an organisation that is committed to their successful future and provides them with so much support.

Before I finish, I want to pay tribute to someone to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude - our Chief Executive Ann McGregor.

Ann has just celebrated 10 years at the helm of the Northern Ireland Chamber and what a ten years it’s been.

She started her job at the beginning of the recession – I think we were calling it a downturn then - not the most ideal time to be joining a business representative organisation. But she embraced the challenges with vigour and vision.

This is now an organisation of 1200 businesses across every sector – from corporates to SMEs - representing over 110,000 employees.

I’ve every confidence that over the next number of years we’ll continue to attract new ambitious and growing companies and that we’ll deliver an increasing number of exciting member services for them, such as our flagship programme Learn Grow Excel.

Ann – We’re well on our way from Good to Great. Our congratulations and our thanks to you.

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