Month of political upheaval ends with food for thought for CBI

Pictured at the CBI Northern Ireland dinner in the Waterfront Hall are (from left) Barry Smyth (MCS Group), Angela McGowan (CBI Northern Ireland director), Adrian Doran (Barclays Northern Ireland) and David Gavaghan (CBI Northern Ireland chairman). Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

APRIL was an incredibly busy month for the CBI. The Northern Ireland business community was just coming to terms with the triggering of Article 50 in March and also waiting patiently for some news around the formation of a local Executive, when out of the blue a snap UK general election was called.

Despite the political upheaval there was business as usual for the CBI. This involved responding to both the UK and the regional industrial strategies. Given the heightened uncertainty for companies across the country because of Brexit, the CBI has been very vocal in calling for some extra support for industry. Our members have welcomed both strategies but there is widespread recognition that they are far from perfect.

On the UK's industrial strategy, our Director General Carolyn Fairbairn has queried the government around five key areas:

1 Vision - what does success look like in 5, 10 and 15 years from now? What kind of economy does the UK want to be, beyond the characteristics we all agree on, like productive and inclusive? There will be hard choices.

2 Measurement – what targets will be put in place? The Government needs to define its success in terms of measures and performance indicators. This is the bedrock of accountability and should be independently verified.

3 World-beating sectors - will all sectors have deals with the Government, or only some? If the answer is some, then which ones and why? The plan should replicate bright examples of existing strategy, such as automotive and aerospace.

4 Focus - what is the hard-edged action plan that sits behind the 10 pillars? While the draft strategy lists many routes for change, the final strategy will need to prioritise and focus on doing a few things well - outlining clear actions and milestones.

5 Consistency - what is the Government's plan to ensure everything does not change again in three years' time? Firms need consistency and predictability. There are too many historic examples of flash-in-the-pan industrial strategies – this one must go further.

With regard to Northern Ireland's regional industrial strategy, the CBI response has raised concerns around a number of areas. For example, with only one reference to Brexit in the entire document, there is a fear that the current strategy is ignoring the dramatically changing wider environment. There also needs to be some prioritisation of the 53 policy commitments contained within the document and also the final strategy needs to project a much greater sense of urgency when it comes to delivering those priorities.

There are in addition a number of other issues that ought to be taken on board, such as greater recognition of the importance of tourism or better alignment with the UK's industrial strategy. But overall, there is a good chance that the current draft strategy, when revised after the consultation, can be made to work for local businesses. For this to happen we need a new Executive and local Ministers who are committed to delivery.

Of course, industrial strategies are important, but regardless of what is going on in the UK and Northern Ireland, events and attitudes in Europe will continue to influence our future. Maintaining a good relationship with the EU is critical to success. In the last week CBI President Paul Drechsler CBE called for some positive momentum early on in the negotiations.

He argues that: “With well over €600 billion worth of trade every year between the UK and EU, the economic case for making rapid progress on a trade agreement is crystal clear. Discussions around the new trading relationship should begin as soon as possible to deliver certainty and clarity for businesses on both sides”.

The CBI President also insists that both sides of the negotiating table should seek to secure agreement on the rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice-versa within weeks. He also wants to see the agreement of interim arrangements up-front, should negotiations not be fully concluded within two years.

Mr Drechsler quite rightly asserts “with unprecedented and hugely complex negotiations ahead, economic arguments must cut through the politics so that we can secure an outcome that delivers prosperity for all countries involved”.

He argues that the first big job for any new UK Government will be to provide confidence to business that a strong, long-term relationship can be secured and that economies and societies on both sides of the Channel can continue to benefit from economic growth and provide greater opportunities of prosperity for all.

Finally, it should be said, that despite the political turbulence at all levels during April, the CBI also took time out to celebrate our annual dinner. With a sell-out audience of 600 people in the beautiful Waterfront hall we had a fantastic evening with the best of the local business community, politicians, policy makers and leading industry experts such as Professor Sir John McCanny (QUB), Colin Williams from Sixteen South and Grainne Watson – a rising star from Fujitsu.

Colin's company is at the forefront of children's film animation and he is a perfect example of how people from Northern Ireland can compete and win on the international stage. Professor McCanny is a world leader in cyber security and he led the initiative that brought about the Centre for Secure Information Technology here in Belfast. The centre has facilitated the creation of more than 1,000 new jobs in the local knowledge economy.

As the business community listened to their conversation on the stage last week, we temporarily put all our worries behind us and we had the pleasure of focusing only on the great possibilities that lie ahead for Northern Ireland given the wealth of talent among our people.

:: Angela McGowan is regional director of CBI NI. Follow her on Twitter @angela_mcgowan.

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