Brendan Mulgrew: Now we need to see goodwill turned into output
LAST week the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce hosted an online discussion with the Taoiseach Micheal Martin. The event was an example of how the Chamber, well known for hosting excellent networking events pre Covid, has pragmatically addressed the problems associated with pandemic and the ongoing restrictions around the numbers of people that can gather together.
This time last year they were hosting events on Zoom and they worked relatively well. Twelve months later, Ann McGregor and her professional team are staging events which are the next best thing to being in the same room as the speakers, as the session was broadcast from a studio with recent BBC retiree Mark Davenport and SSE Airtricity’s Mark Ennis putting questions to the Taoiseach, who was entirely at ease dealing the topics raised by the virtual audience.
There was probably nothing which Martin and his team hadn’t prepared for or expected. Questions covered the Protocol, the fall out from the post Brexit stand off, the need to harmonise infrastructure development on an all Ireland basis. He in turn was keen to stress the need for continued, and indeed enhanced north-south cooperation.
The emerging discussion about a border poll and the potential for a new Ireland on a politically united island is gathering pace, indeed there is hardly a day now when one or more major media outlets is not analysing an opinion poll or grilling politicians on the issue. That is welcome and as Northern Ireland is taken out of the European Union against the wishes of the majority, and in the face of a UK Government increasingly driven by a fervent and narrow form of English nationalism more people will look to a realignment of politics across the island.
An Taoiseach is playing a longer and more subtle hand. During the Chamber of Commerce event Micheal Martin stressed on more than one occasion that the work of the Shared Island Unit which he established when taking office, has the potential to transform the economy and make a difference to people’s lives project by project, in a way which will naturally lead to increased and shared prosperity and bring about a new approach to how we all live together in this small space. Better that than a snap, device border poll in the short term which will only highlight the division between competing political philosophies in the North.
In time history will judge whether the Fianna Fail leader is right in this approach. But one thing for sure is that if anything is to change, even in the longer term, the two governments and the NI Executive will have to deliver on the potential which exists in the here and now.
On Friday last, French tech company Expleo announced it would double the number of employees in Belfast to 200 by 2023. That is happening even as we grapple with the uncertainty around the Protocol and the impact of Brexit.
Expleo are not taking a gamble with that investment decision. They have clearly weighed up the potential and the benefit of Northern Ireland having ready access to the EU and the GB markets. This is the kind of investment which those who are expending political energy with hapless embarrassing Protocol protests should acknowledge and indeed welcome.
It’s the kind of investment that Micheal Martin was referring to when he pointed out when he said “this access is unique, offers opportunities for trade, jobs and investment, and gives NI the scope to attract whole new industries.”
It is timely to point out too that 68 per cent of the members of the NI Chamber recognise that Northern Ireland’s unique position post Brexit presents opportunities for the region.
There was also a welcome emphasis on the need for enhanced connectivity on the island and in particular the Belfast to Dublin economic corridor which will “help us to unlock the full potential of the all island economy.”
There are practical examples of north south co-operation like the Ulster Canal and the Narrow Water Bridge, which are achievable in the short term. The Shared Island Unit carries a significant budget of €500 million, showing that the Irish Government is prepared to invest in improving infrastructure and better connecting our towns and cities.
Here in Belfast, Translink is well advanced in taking forward the new Transport Hub off the Grosvenor Road which will transform public transport locally as well as increasing linkages across Ireland and even globally. Transport-led economic regeneration has had a positive impact in other cities across our islands and an ambition shared between our Executive and a willing partner in the Irish Government could deliver a sea change in Northern Ireland too. The politicians from Nichola Mallon to Eamon Ryan, Micheal Martin and Arlene Foster & Michelle O’Neill are making all the right soundings, now we need to see goodwill turned into output.
More than a year into the Covid crisis, perhaps the end is finally in sight. This past weekend as the sun came out, the apparent easing of tension between our political parties, the reopening of some businesses, the return of sport and enormous success of our vaccine roll out all converged to lift the general mood.
A little bit of optimism can go a very long way. This past week it was refreshing to hear it from the top of the Irish government.
Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast