New year 'must bring clarity to business and avoid messy Brexit'
THE newly-appointed head of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry says 2019 must “bring clarity to business – whilst avoiding a messy or disorderly Brexit”, and insists: "It's now time to put political games to bed".
Allstate NI managing director John Healy has succeeded Ellvena Graham as president of the business support organisation, which represents more than 1,200 businesses across the north, employing in excess of 100,000 people.
And in his inaugural message, he looks ahead to a potentially difficult 2019 and addresses issues such as the skills shortage and the continued lack of a devolved administration.
He said: “2018 has been a year of many challenges for the local business community, with the continuing absence of the Executive and the ever more ominous threat of Brexit. The backstop, re-elections, votes of confidence (or lack of) were among the words making their way across news sources in the UK, and even globally. And Northern Ireland was, and still is, centre stage.
"What this means for our members is that they now enter 2019 having not been able to plan ahead for the year due to the ongoing political uncertainty at Westminster.”
Mr Healy added: “It's now time to put political games to bed. As a business organisation we want to see an outcome that's best for businesses, for consumers, for the economy and for the future stability of Northern Ireland.
"Firms are still in the dark as to what trading conditions they will face. Neither the country nor businesses are prepared for a no deal Brexit, so parliamentarians on all sides must redouble efforts to ensure that we don't face this scenario by default.”
On a lack of an Executive and key decision making, he went on: “While Brexit dominates the political and economic climate, it's important to remember that there are a number of issues within our control that we could address via an Executive. The priority must be to get an Executive back as soon as possible to implement an Economic Strategy and progress a number of key projects that are currently being held up in their absence.
“These include the much needed Belfast Transport Hub; further investment projects in the harbour area including grade A office space for inward investors, a new power station and the cruise ship terminal; the roll out of super-fast broadband and the north south interconnector to name a few. We cannot go another few months without these key decisions being made - another year is unthinkable.”
Addressing the skills shortage (eight in 10 NI Chamber members admit they are currently finding it hard to fill vacancies), Mr Healy said: “We have a huge amount of potential locked in our economy, but we need to find a way to unleash it.
"All members - from agri foods to IT and manufacturing - have a big demand for skills. That's compounded by our flawed university funding model and the fact that the Apprenticeship Levy is not working for Northern Ireland.
“Brexit also comes into play in terms of freedom of movement and access to skills. Our companies are committed to developing home-grown talent but that alone is not enough to fill the skills gap.
"Continued access to the labour pool from EEA countries is vital. In the immediate term the reintroduction of Tier 3 visas; and an extension to the casual workers visa would assist the current shortage.
"In a post Brexit scenario, businesses need to see a regional approach to the proposed minimum salary threshold for migrant workers - a £30,000 minimum would cut off the supply of much-needed workers for Northern Ireland.”
Mr Healy continued: “It is important to highlight that despite the challenges, we have much to celebrate as a business community. For example the collaboration and positive attitude of our councils, educational institutions, and businesses has led to the approval of the £1 billion Belfast Region City Deal, which is poised to benefit our economy massively in the coming years. And hopefully 2019 will bring another one in the north west region.
“It's vital we maintain this positive outlook over the next 12 months. We have a wealth of innovative and successful businesses, an exceptional higher education sector and a resilient and forward-thinking workforce.
"We must make it our priority to answer our economy's demands for skilled workers and support those businesses who need our expertise and guidance in this ever more global and increasingly changeable world."
He added: “I'm delighted to take on the role of president at a time when the Chamber of Commerce movement has never been more important, and we are committed to ensuring that our members are provided with the very best support to enable them to grow their businesses.”
Mr Healy is joined by NI Chamber vice-president Ian Henry (director of Magherafelt-based Henry Group) and chief executive Ann McGregor in leading the organisation over the next year.