Northern Ireland 'has been a rudderless ship for too long' says Chamber president

NI Chamber president John Healy
Gary McDonald Business Editor

FOR the second year running, the head of the north's biggest business organisation has taken a swipe at idle politicians at the organisation's showcase event of the year.

Just as his predecessor Ellvena Graham did last year, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce president John Healy said the lack of a functioning Stormont administration needs to be urgently addressed to secure the prosperity of communities and the fortunes of business.

"When will we see the re-establishment of a Northern Ireland Executive that will help us address these and many other problems – an Executive that’s open, that listens, is committed and competent?" he asked.

Addressing 900 guests at the president's banquet in the ICC, including a number of senior politicians, Mr Healy made an impassioned call for mature and visionary political leadership.

“We’ve been a rudderless ship for too long,” said Mr Healy, managing director of Allstate NI.

“When even Van Morrison, who has spent a lifetime studiously staying out of Northern Irish politics, feels he has to comment in his latest song 'Nobody in Charge’ then maybe we should pay attention. In Van’s own words: ‘Don’t you think everyone’s had enough?’”

In a wide-ranging address, Mr Healy added: “For the past two and a half years since the Brexit vote, we’ve seen every possible permutation. We’ve been on the brink, we’ve been on a knife edge. There’ve been lights going on and off at the end of tunnels – and still Northern Ireland waits anxiously for the outcome.

“But we’re already feeling the effects. The results of our latest quarterly economic survey show a continuing dip in business confidence, and a belief that we are entering a recession. This should be a concern for all of us - business leaders, employers, politicians and anyone with a vested interest in the Northern Ireland economy.”

And without such political leadership, Mr Healy said that long-standing issues around innovation, education and skills continue to remain unresolved.

“This is a critical juncture for Northern Ireland, a time when we need mature leadership, leaders with vision, leaders who won’t drag us back into the past but will help us navigate the path to the future.”

Guest speak at the Chamber banquet was acclaimed documentary film-maker, Louis Theroux, who provided an extraordinary insight into his experience of knowing and understanding an incredible range of human behaviours.

Mr Healy pointed out that Louis is the son of distinguished travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux, who in 1982 wrote a book called 'The Kingdom By The Sea' in which he described his experiences of travelling right round the coast of the UK.

“He used public transport and even hitch hiked - and a boat trip across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland was also part of his journey. Here he explored the coastline from Donaghadee to Derry, from Portavogie to Portrush and the towns in between.

“So what did he think? Well, to put it mildly, not much. He really liked the people but he wrote that that he had never imagined that this place ‘could look so threadbare - such empty trains, such blackened buildings, such recent ruins'.” And who could blame him? Northern Ireland in 1982 was in a sorry state.

“But if Paul were to travel back to Northern Ireland today he would find a very different place – a better place.

“If a cruise ship had docked in Belfast back in 1982, crowds would have flocked to see it. Back then tourists were few and far between. This year, no fewer than 148 ships came here, bringing 285,000 visitors from all over the world.

“If you’d told someone in 1982 that in 35 years’ time the world’s biggest television series would be made here, using local talent, you’d have laughed at it. If you’d said that Belfast would be the number one destination globally for fintech development projects they would have accused you of being on the sherry!

“There are local businesses represented here tonight - new firms at the heart of the digital revolution like Neueda, FinTru and Alchemy Tech - whose success is founded on ideas and innovation not even dreamed of in 1982.

“And there are others with a longer history and a more traditional or manufacturing background – firms like the McAvoy Group, Tobermore, W & R Barnett, the Henry Group, which have worked through both the bitter challenges of the Troubles and all the difficulties of an economy recovering from 30 years of conflict."

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