Ring fence our future

Representatives from a number of business, civic and academic organisations - including Women in Business - came together last week to present an open letter to members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, calling on MLAs to find a way forward in creating a power-sharing government
Roseann Kelly

LAST year at the Northern Ireland Assembly Business Trust President's dinner in Belfast, guest speaker Madam Shuying, Consul General for the People's Republic of China, talked about China's 35-year economic plan.

Following this event I wrote about the Women in Business manifesto and how core issues for society should have long term plans that are ring fenced against what I described as: “democratic hazards and encumbrances such as four or five-year election cycles are forcing us in the west to taking the very short term view. Add to this the pressures from shareholders and investors, anyone proposing a 35-year plan will be whistling in the wind.”

Last week I was invited with other business leaders to Parliament Buildings to briefings, held separately by Sinn Fein and the DUP. An open letter from the business community had called on the parties to do a deal and get back to business, hence the invite.

And although both parties were adamant that they wanted the Assembly back up and running, their differences and lack of trust, mutual respect and deep suspicion were barriers.

I asked if, at the very minimum, they could agree on a long-term education plan and ring fence it so that when it comes to our children we are not “whistling in the wind”.

The proposals within the Women in Business manifesto are all long term. We feel so strongly about the importance of our manifesto to the economy of Northern Ireland that we asked for it and all long-term strategies to be ring-fenced for the required term of completion.

The manifesto challenged our political representatives and the policy community to take up our call for normality, balance and equality with creativity and ambition. We outlined the following four challenges form the pillars of our arguments :

EDUCATION: School leavers have little if any concept of business. Careers advice, access to information about business and education in business skills is disappointingly scarce. Yet there are 80,000 small businesses in Northern Ireland. More should be done to instil entrepreneurial ambitions and desires in children and young people.

DIVERSITY: The evidence is abundantly clear that businesses with diverse workforces, senior management teams and boards are more successful and profitable than those that have not. In the US, Sweden, Germany and Norway, corporate leaders across the economy have embraced diversity by implementing quotas including the aim for 30 per cent female representation on boards, yet very little progress has been made in Northern Ireland and the UK where the numbers are shockingly low.

FEMALE ENTREPRENEURSHIP: Northern Ireland is the only region of Europe not to have a government-funded female-specific enterprise support programme. Women in Business is reliant on membership fees, sponsorship and events income. This is a poor display by a modern society and plays badly with investors.

IMMIGRATION: Northern Ireland needs more diversity, and not just among the genders. We need to be immersed in the influences and cultures of other people in order to better understand the markets across the world. This is a commercial necessity. More ethnic diversity brings more talent, skills and broader outlooks and these will help redefine Northern Ireland as an enlightened society populated by creative and forward thinking people and business leaders.

So I appeal again - let's make those hard decisions that will make a meaningful difference. Let's ring fence our future. The solutions will not materialise overnight, but let's hope they won't take 35 years either.

:: Roseann Kelly (roseann@ is chief executive of Women in Business (, the largest and fastest growing business network for female entrepreneurs and senior women in management in Northern Ireland, with 2,500 members spread throughout all industry sectors. Follow Women in Business NI on Facebook at or on Twitter @wibni.


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