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We need fully working Executive now… it’s time to stop the games

Business is clear on what needs to happen next – a fully-functioning Executive must now be formed. But just a few weeks after Northern Ireland went to the polls, the DUP says it will not return to Stormont until the UK Government takes action on what it sees an Irish Sea border. John Mulgrew looks where we’re at, what got us here and why the restoration of local government is essential for our economic and societal futures

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DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson with his newly-elected MLAs at Stormont

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson with his newly-elected MLAs at Stormont

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson with his newly-elected MLAs at Stormont

The relative elation, tension and feverish atmosphere of the count centres just a few weeks ago soon fell away and back to reverse gear when the dust finally settled.

It may have been a night to remember for Naomi Long’s Alliance during a record election performance while Sinn Fein’s topping of the polls hit front pages across the globe, as the two days finished, the reality of any lack of progress of the formation of a new Executive once again came to the fore.

And as we sit now, following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to Northern Ireland and lengthy mission statement in the Belfast Telegraph, we are little the wiser as to what his amendments to the Protocol could look like.

Mr Johnson said his plan to legislate to rip up Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements was an “insurance” policy if a fresh deal could not be reached with the European Union although he remains frustrated that talks with Brussels to resolve the protocol problems have not made sufficient progress.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Johnson said that “in today’s debates about Brexit and the Protocol, let us embrace that hybridity. Let us make it work”.

He’s indicated the Northern Ireland Protocol will not be scrapped – thus falling short of the DUP’s ultimate caveat of the removal of any checks at the Irish Sea border between GB and NI.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has confirmed she intends to introduce legislation “in the coming weeks” to make changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

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But while DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said it was a good start, he’s not said his party will return to Stormont and form an Executive.

And with some of the messaging from London, we appear to be entering a fresh round of semantics.

Business has had a lot to deal with in the months and years since the vote for Brexit in 2016.

And while sectors have spent millions adapting and pulling themselves out of a fiscal hole created by an unprecedented pandemic, the blockage is now one which is largely self-made.

In an echo back to the build-up to EU referendum, business is shouting as a loud as it can – largely unified. “Get back to work,” one leading company chief says. I imagine others would choose more colourful language.

While there were cheers and roars as members across the political spectrum were elected during two days of counting in May, in the hours and days following we were left feeling significantly less elated.

It’s glaringly obviously that an overwhelming majority of businesses of all shapes and sizes want parties to get to work, and get to work now.

The voice of business is as clear as it was in the run-up to the vote. And a protest at a devolved level of government – which cannot in and of itself shape international policy or legislation around the UK’s position post-EU – is not the way to do it.

Caretaker ministers will not suffice. We need power-sharing returned and a full Executive appointed following an election.

Following comments from Boris Johnson regarding whether MLAs should be able to take a full salary or not, it seems some believe a reduction is an option.

However, at this stage it’s one group holding the Executive to ransom.

Businesses and lobby groups probably feel like they are suffering from déjà vu when it comes to calls for the DUP to work to form an Executive with the rest of the parties.

It was firmly behind remaining in the EU and largely backs a modified version of the Protocol which is in place to secure Northern Ireland’s own relationship and access to the single market.

A former party stalwart – ex-Economy and Health Minister – Simon Hamilton said the message, in his current role as chief executive of Belfast Chamber, is “pretty clear”.

“We need to get the Executive back as quickly as possible,” he said.

“What businesses and society want are ministers around the Executive table, taking collective decisions to deal with the full range of problems companies are grappling with right now.”

And Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry said party politics must be put aside to “deliver the certainty and stability that businesses, their employees and everyone in Northern Ireland deserves”.

“Right now companies are being tested like never before. Their resilience is being pushed by a myriad of challenges from soaring costs, labour, and skills shortages, to supply chain issues and uncertainty around the NI Protocol.

“Such a challenging environment requires a functioning Executive. It is therefore critical that the new Executive is formed without delay and that all ministers commit to seeing through a full mandate, delivering on the issues that matter.”

Speaking in this edition of the magazine, Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said: “It should have been formed the week after the election. There are so many challenges which can only be sorted with local politicians making local decisions. There is money on the table that needs to go to families and businesses.”

We’ve been going round the merry-go-round for days and weeks now.

And musical chairs continues. At the Lagan Valley count, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP told me the party’s position remained the same, and that the UK Government must act on its NI Protocol woes.

Party colleague, Ian Paisley MP told me – more firmly – that the party would not form a new Executive if the situation around the NI Protocol remained the same.

Since then, Sir Jeffrey has resigned his seat as an MLA, co-opting former MP Emma Pengelly into the role in Lagan Valley.

The potential prospect of another election the coming months is not the direction of travel we want to take.

Instability and uncertainty may sound like buzzwords rolled out when politicians or the business community wants to make a point, but they are very real.

Companies looking to these shores to invest will take what is happening around us very seriously. There’s no three year budget, for example. Any financial assistance you were earmarked for in potentially moving here, is that all still on the cards for example?

Following outbursts of sporadic violence at the end of last year – leading to us landing on the front pages of papers around the world for all the wrong reasons once again – we cannot be in another position where we are painting such a negative picture on the world stage while still failing to properly govern the people of Northern Ireland.

Some of those stopping progress need to rein in any ego and look at the wider landscape. Businesses here are the ones fuelling our economy – creating jobs, selling and producing world-beating products, contributing to the economy and ensuring Northern Ireland is as prosperous a place as it can be. You are here to govern. So govern. ■


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