Business

Good riddance 2017. Now let's make this a year of change

With nuclear threats being made over Twitter in 2017, it has at times felt like we were all just characters in a George Orwell novel

IF I'm truthful, I'm glad to see the back of 2017. It was not a great year for Northern Ireland in terms of politics or economics. It was no better for the UK. Indeed I've never seen the country so economically and politically divided in my lifetime. There's been divisions between ‘haves' and ‘have nots', between old and young, and between Brexit supporters and enthusiasts of the European project. Even that close and growing relationship that had been built-up between the UK and Ireland over the last couple of decades looked under severe strain on some occasions last year.

There were very ugly moments all around in 2017 with racists and sexist incident making headlines. Indeed the UK Home Office reported in October that hate crimes were up by a third. We saw three members of the UK's Cabinet being forced to resign and we saw nearly every MP in the country wasting a day in parliament debating the release of 57 Brexit impact papers with their promised “excruciating detail” – and then it transpired that they did not really exist.

In the US, the political scene in 2017 was just as ugly. Diplomacy was often ditched, false promises made, walls and borders were promoted over building bridges and political harmony. US President Donald Trump tweeted videos made by a British far-right group ‘Britain First' and the world looked on as White House senior staff repeatedly made the headlines for being fired or walking out on the Trump administration. With nuclear threats being made over Twitter in 2017, it has at times felt like we were all just characters in a George Orwell novel.

'Trumponomics' with its hard core “America First” approach also sent a dark cloud in Northern Ireland's direction last year. In the autumn, the US Commerce Department upheld a Boeing complaint around Bombardier's sales of the C-Series into the US. Even though Boeing had abandoned that segment of the market more than a decade earlier, the US Commerce Department still upheld the complaint and proposed import duties of nearly 300 per cent on the C Series sold in the US.

Should this preliminary decision be upheld by the US International Trade Commission, it could potentially put thousands of high-technology jobs around the world at risk, including some in Belfast. However, Bombardier is confident that at the end of the process, the US Trade Commission will reach the right conclusion. Nonetheless, a warning shot has been fired from the US and the UK should take heed. A trade relationship with the US will always put America first!

Yet despite 2017's bitter disappointments, it might be hard to believe, but I am actually optimistic about 2018 . . .

While I suspect it will be tough in terms of slowing growth and above target inflation squeezing consumer incomes, the year will hopefully turn out to be a turning point. I'm a firm believer that the truth always stands the test of time – the realities of a hard Brexit, extreme ideologies, populist leaders promising contradictory outcomes and economic protectionism will all come under scrutiny in the next 12-15 months.

A more realistic approach to Brexit and evidence-based economic policy will undoubtedly emerge. The business community in Northern Ireland is delighted to see a more sensible approach already being advocated by the Chancellor Philip Hammond who has left open the possibility of the UK joining a new customs union with Europe.

Such a move would give great comfort to local firms, would help to solve the Northern Ireland border problem and consumers would also be grateful for a tariff-free trading relationship with our largest trading partner.

For companies across Northern Ireland, the uncertainty around Brexit will not completely disappear in 2018. But we must keep in mind that the current trading arrangements and access to European markets will continue for now and sensible solutions about future trading arrangements will start to dominate the political debate. Firms can also take comfort from the fact that the global economy will continue to perform well in 2018 with world growth expected to reach 3.3 per cent.

At the local level, the chances of the Executive getting back up and running are probably 50-50. There is no doubt that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a devolved government that works to raise living standards for everyone regardless of their colour, creed or sexual orientation.

Back in 1998 the public voted overwhelmingly for a power-sharing government at Stormont and indeed up until 2016/17, political parties largely managed to work constructively together in a devolved government – so we know that it is indeed possible.

Unfortunately though, the political mood last year turned very sour. This can happen from time to time in the political world; but with the right leadership, with compromise and if politicians in Northern Ireland recognise that they are in government to serve and respect all the people of Northern Ireland, a functioning Executive is possible.

That much-needed respect has all too frequently been absent on both sides of the political divide. Perhaps as we move into 2018 we shall see outright rejection of the type of politics which has pitched community against community. In the year ahead, I sincerely hope that people across Northern Ireland will demand that our political leaders work constructively for the good of the economy and future generations.

:: Angela McGowan is director of CBI Northern Ireland. Follow her at @angela_mcgowan

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