Business

Whatever the result, our economy needs a functioning Executive

Some 48 hours ahead of polling stations opening, it's imperative that a functioning Executive follows - for the sake of the economy, international competitiveness and the prosperity of all communities

AHEAD of one of the most important Assembly elections in living memory, the CBI's recent event with political leaders provided an unrivalled opportunity to put the priorities of local companies back on the map.

Hosted in Queen's University Belfast's Great Hall and made possible thanks to the kind support of Fibrus, firms from across Northern Ireland came together for the first time in some time to listen and connect in person with local politicians.

Companies had a chance to have their voices heard on the topics that matter for the wider economy and the growth of their business, which in turn benefits all our local communities. Similarly, politicians from the main local political parties were able to set out their stalls on the issues truly front of mind for every business leader: the cost of living and doing business, energy prices, the Protocol, access to skills, infrastructure, planning and decarbonisation. Debate flowed, and if time had allowed, I suspect we would have covered many more topics still.

There's never been a more important time to prioritise the health of the Northern Ireland economy. Two years on from the onset of a pandemic which saw many firms shuttered for months and footfall drop to zero for some sectors, we're now in the midst of the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation.

Make no mistake, these are tough times for businesses, just as they are for households. And whether you're holding the purse strings of a big multi-location company or trying to make ends meet within your family finances, it's likely that current cost pressures are biting deep – and impacting both immediate and future spending intentions.

That's why this is a perilous time not only for business, but for the longer-term prospects for Northern Ireland economy and its communities. Because even those who have defied the odds to keep their heads above water over the past few years are finding things tough right now.

Downward pressure intensifies by the week and as trading becomes more difficult, so investment intentions falter. All of the big ambitions we hold for levelling up, economic growth and a low carbon transition are all become markedly harder to achieve.

Members provide me with the detail of these challenges every day. But what struck me even more was how clearly they communicated the challenges of continued political instability for the NI economy. They spoke of their specific company experiences and expressed their sincere hope an Executive will be formed quickly post-election.

Because they believe that if policy-makers come together to act now, together we can collectively catch our economy from faltering further. NI business leaders want Ministers in post working together in the coming weeks. They're desperate to see politicians getting on with the matter in hand, so they can get on with growing their businesses in the face of strong economic headwinds. Because each day that ticks by, they wince at the economic opportunities breezing past us.

No one doubts that if an Executive is formed that it will face significant challenges. And yes, while we accept of our challenges are felt globally, some could be lessened locally.

There are no quick fixes. Yet a working Executive could deploy around £330 million to help soften the blow of the cost-of-living crisis for households. A working Executive could accelerate action that needs to happen now if we are to achieve net zero by 2050; for example, provide that much needed Electric Vehicle Charging Strategy.

And a working Executive could deliver an ambitious Programme for Government and tackle some of the very issues that we touched on in last week's debate – education and skills, infrastructure, reducing the outward flow of our young people.

In these tough times, business too knows it must stand up and be counted. At the CBI, we remain ready, and we want to help. Because by continuing to listen to the experiences of firms, policy-makers can take forward practical solutions to help the economy grow and then thrive.

There's no reason if we can take steps now to safeguard the economy why we can't deliver pro-growth policies to secure our long-term prospects. We've got a real chance to push forward if we work together in a spirit of collaboration. We cannot wait until later this year to deploy growth boosting measures. We will only imperil our ability to succeed.

So, with just 48 hours until the people of Northern Ireland go to the polls, I sincerely hope that, whatever the result, a functioning Executive follows - for the sake of the economy, our international competitiveness and for the prosperity of all communities.

:: Angela McGowan is CBI Northern Ireland director

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