CBI director general Tony Danker tells John Mulgrew it’s clear that there must be a return to a working Executive as soon as possible, that most firms want the NI Protocol to work and that issues can be addressed, why a conversation around sausages can’t bring the political process to its knees, and why the UK Government must now use its coffers to address the cost of living crisis and help those struggling to put food on the table
Belfast-born CBI chief Tony Danker says businesses want the NI Protocol to work and we must see a return to a fully-operational devolved government as soon as possible.
Mr Danker, during a visit to Northern Ireland earlier today, told Ulster Business that amid “political dysfunction and grandstanding” we should return to a working Assembly and Executive as soon as possible to address key issues here.
And on the NI Protocol – the stalemate which the DUP says it will not return to devolved government without significant amendments – Mr Danker says the “overwhelming majority of businesses” want it to work.
On the Protocol issues between parties, he says “there is a landing zone” which is “eminently achievable”.
“The overwhelming majority of businesses want the Protocol to work, they just do. Businesses didn’t design the Protocol, it was a political construct and they want to work,” he says.
He says Northern Ireland businesses want to find a competitiveness, and that’s something the NI Protocol can offer.
“We live in a climate with political instability… number two, from a tax rate point of view we have widened the gap with the south in terms of what Rishi Sunak (the Chancellor) has done in terms of (increasing) corporation tax.
“Those are two pretty considerable disadvantages. All of a sudden what we see in the Protocol is the potential to have a winning competitive advantage, which is the ability to service both markets.
“I think it’s fine for the politicians to grandstand… but at the end of the day, if you want to if you want to build a prosperous Northern Ireland, which in turn, by the way, delivers a peaceful Northern Ireland, then you have to pay attention to what is the competitive advantage of Northern Irish business.”
He says the Protocol is working for the vast majority of firms, but he says as an importer from GB, there remain issues which need to be improved.
And he says the Executive should be re-established as soon as possible.
“I think it's a problem that every time a packet of sausages crosses the border, we need to bring down the Executive,” he says,
On industry claims that GB firms are failing to adapt to the changing trading arrangements and failing to deal with Northern Ireland companies as a result, he says “it’s definitely true” but that he’s hearing fewer cases of that being an issue.
Mr Danker said he had spoken to around 30 firms since arriving in Northern Ireland for his latest visit.
He says the main issues facing firms include inflation – which he says have been around 20% in the last couple of months – along with labour shortages.
And while the phrase ‘recession’ had been bandied about in recent months by some amid soaring inflation and a cost of living crisis, Mr Danker says it hasn’t been at the fore when it comes to issues being discussed by members.
“If you’re asking from my business point of view, the sooner we have a high functioning Executive, the better… it's just obviously true.
“And there are there are loads of areas of policy that are really important to growth and competitiveness.
“So, whether or not it's major infrastructure projects that clearly need a functioning Executive to improve whether or not it is skills policy.
“But my own view would be the landing zone on the Protocol is there I think it's eminently achievable.
“I think it's a problem that every time a packet of sausages crosses the border, we need to bring down the Executive or we need we need Dublin, London and Brussels to have a war of words.
“And one of our proposals around new discussions on the Protocol is how can we build in technical working groups with businesses around the table to design implementable solutions.
“Because, the political dysfunction and grandstanding. You can sort of understand at the macro level, but what we can't build is a Protocol outcome where that can happen every three months when they disagree about whether or not the ‘trusted trader’ schemes should be using a different software. I mean, come on.”
Following meetings with political parties including Sinn Fein and the DUP, he said: “Now I've spoken to the DUP and Sinn Fein in the last 24 hours about their view on whether there's a landing zone and I think they all think there's a landing zone.”
And Mr Danker is clear the UK Government should act now in assisting those who are struggling to put food on the table amid this cost of living crisis.
“They could be putting real money in the pockets of those who need it most,” he says. “And I am really happy to be completely agnostic about how they do that.”