A week is a long time in politics

The ludicrous suggestion that 'no deal is better than a bad deal' on Brexit must now be put back in the garbage bin where it belongs

THIS is the second summer where the polls have surprised us all. When the history books are written, the aftermath of the 2017 general election will be viewed as a crossroads for the UK. There are hard choices to be made about what kind of economy we want. But one thing is clear – it's time to put the economy back at the top of the agenda where it belongs.

The political sands shifted significantly last Thursday when the majority of UK voters refused to give Mrs May her requested mandate for a hard Brexit – i.e, crashing out of the single market and customs union without a deal. The idea of letting the economy suffer in the interests of controlling migration has now been firmly rejected.

In total, those UK parties advocating a soft Brexit (or indeed no Brexit) in their manifestos won 55.8 per cent of the national vote; while those parties willing to accept a hard Brexit (the Conservatives and UKIP) won a total of 44.2 per cent of the votes.

But that 44.2 per cent is weakened even further when we consider that within the Conservative party there are a significant number of MPs who are fiercely opposed to a hard Brexit, for example the Scottish Conservatives. This latest development can only be good news for Northern Ireland and its business community.

Although David Davis stated just two weeks ahead of the election that 'no deal' was manageable, it is widely believed in Northern Ireland that a hard Brexit had the potential to destroy not just our economy but could also have implications for the peace process. The ludicrous suggestion that 'no deal is better than a bad deal' must now be put back in the garbage bin where it belongs.

At the time of writing, Northern Ireland's DUP party is having discussions with the Conservatives and those negotiations are expected to continue into this week. Arlene Foster is expected to go over to London on Tuesday to negotiate with the Prime Minister - someone George Osborne has described as a “dead woman walking”.

Regarding the implications of any deal between the DUP and the Conservatives, only time will tell. The business community is keen to see a move away from a hard Brexit and of course having Northern Ireland's economic interests put to the top of the UK's agenda can only be a good thing.

But worries have been raised over the weekend by Lord Murphy and Peter Hain. They have queried the implications for any DUP/ Conservative pact on the impartiality of the UK government and its ability to act as an honest broker under the Good Friday Agreement. They point out that if the UK government has a pact with the DUP to keep the Conservatives in power, this could obstruct Northern Ireland talks aimed at getting the local Executive back up and running again.

Not everyone agrees. Indeed, over the weekend Mrs Foster was quick to state that she “will work to bring about outcomes that are beneficial to all”. Once more, only time will tell how this will play out, but ultimately, we all know that economic growth requires political stability at both the national and the regional level.

This latest election has taught us a lot about the UK electorate. The public have very different views when it comes to political ideology. There is no denying that the UK is currently a very divided country, and unfortunately, so too is Northern Ireland. Politicians must accept that harsh reality.

But rather than allowing the UK, or indeed a devolved region such as Northern Ireland or Scotland, to tear itself apart; politicians must accept that compromise and partnership are the only way forward. Rather than paying lip-service to “uniting the country” politicians now need to demonstrate compromise through their actions and their policies.

The CBI is committed to an open and fair economy that works for everyone in Northern Ireland. As the voice of business across this region, we will have our economic asks of any new government formed. Our CBI business manifesto looks for a long-term framework for the economy which is set out in an industrial strategy and is underpinned by key performance indicators.

In terms of the UK's new relationship with the EU, we want to see a strong economic partnership with the EU, a clear plan for regulation and an evidence-based migration system that would allow companies to access the skills they need.

Northern Ireland's economy is unique, so there are areas where special circumstances must apply. These include, a frictionless border with the Republic, the Common Travel Area, EU funding, the movement of goods with minimal disruption north-south and east-west, protection for our agri-food sector and recognition of the need to collaborate on an all-island basis for areas such as investment in infrastructure, energy and higher education. To succeed in this regard, we must build the best partnership anywhere in the world between business and government.

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

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