Belfast Telegraph

Why Belfast Chamber is cautiously optimistic about the year ahead

Peter Legge, partner, Grant Thornton; Rajesh Rana, president of Belfast Chamber and Mr Hamilton speak to Secretary of State Julian Smith
Peter Legge, partner, Grant Thornton; Rajesh Rana, president of Belfast Chamber and Mr Hamilton speak to Secretary of State Julian Smith

By Simon Hamilton, chief executive of Belfast Chamber

Just before Christmas, Belfast Chamber had the privilege of hosting a round-table discussion between 20 of the city's business leaders and Julian Smith MP in his first public engagement since being reappointed as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Listening to the discussion between Mr Smith and Belfast Chamber's members, I was struck at the sense of optimism, albeit cautious, that existed in the room.

The Secretary of State got a loud and clear message about the many challenges that continue to face the local economy and the assistance that business believes that Government can offer, but there was a confidence about the future that perhaps defied the difficulties of the last few years.

Whatever one's views about the result of the recent general election, Boris Johnson's emphatic victory and sizeable majority has definitely injected some certainty into a political scene that has been sorely absent for some time now, and is instilling some renewed hope that, at long last, much-needed decisions will at long list start to be taken.

Our local business community's concerns about Brexit are well documented. Belfast Chamber has been on record in respecting the referendum result but, like business across Northern Ireland, we have been clear in our desire to see an orderly and business friendly exit from the EU.

Whilst, to put it mildly, many concerns remain about the current prime minister's withdrawal agreement, what it does at least offer business is an end to fears of an utterly disastrous no-deal scenario.

Similarly, a government in Westminster which can begin governing again is welcome news. Brexit has been so all-consuming that it has eaten up most of the bandwidth that would otherwise be devoted to dealing with health, education and the economy.

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The focus of the Johnson administration on investing in infrastructure and ripping up the fiscal rule book for the benefit of the regions bodes well for Northern Ireland.

But, of course, it isn't just in London where local business needs decisions to be taken. It's at Stormont too.

The Secretary of State heard time and time again during his engagement with Belfast Chamber how growth and job creation are being stymied by the absence of an Executive.

Business understands that big differences still exist between our local parties but surely now, after nearly three years without a locally elected, locally accountable administration, as well as a crisis in our NHS and the urgent need to unlock investment, the issues pushing the parties back together are far more important than those that have kept them apart.

The hope of an accommodation before Christmas may have come and gone but the resumption of talks last week is welcome and hope remains of progress. Belfast Chamber made it clear to Julian Smith that business in the city and across the region will support any new Executive to deliver a better future for all our citizens.

Crucially, an incoming Executive will also require assistance from the Government if it is to start on the right footing.

For that reason, Belfast Chamber believes that it is absolutely imperative that any deal to restore power-sharing is accompanied by a financial package that can assist the Executive in overhauling our infrastructure. In our capital city alone, projects like the York Street Interchange are essential for the future success of the economy of the entire region, and the underinvestment in our sewerage infrastructure - which runs the risk of curtailing future growth - must be addressed urgently.

As we commence 2020, with some certainty on the political front nationally and the prospect of a new Executive at Stormont, maybe that optimism isn't so misplaced.

If we can achieve the action and investment to back it up, then we can look forward to not just a good year but a new decade when Belfast achieves its growth ambitions and helps to drive forward the whole region's economy.

Belfast Telegraph