NORTHERN Ireland’s economy is at a crucial inflection point. As businesses face into a difficult year of rising inflation and increased costs of doing business, what’s needed now more than ever is certainty around trading arrangements.
To date, the business community has demonstrated an enormous agility to adapt to the new framework of rules and regulations thrust upon them by the Protocol.
It hasn’t been easy. But for better or worse, the initial implementation of the protocol at least heralded the introduction of a new framework in which Northern Ireland businesses could navigate their way forward in the unique trading landscape they found themselves in post-Brexit.
Indeed, in a recent survey of our Ulster Society members, Chartered Accountants Ireland found that over 70 per cent of respondents viewed the protocol as offering a unique opportunity for the Northern Ireland economy, something badly needed as the cost-of-living crisis continues to squeeze the purchasing power of everyday consumers.
And yet, as 2022 drew to a close, this progress came under significant threat as discord on the withdrawal agreement again pit the UK and EU at loggerheads on the trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
As the government pushed its Protocol Bill through the Houses of Parliament at speed, the EU meanwhile prepared a slew of retaliatory trade tariffs to be effected should the Government renege on the original Withdrawal Agreement.
With flurries of forecasts predicting the onset of a potential recession in Northern Ireland for 2023, this retaliatory back and forth was the last thing on the business community’s Christmas wish list.
Thankfully, progress of some kind may be on the horizon. With a new year upon us and the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement fast approaching, we are seeing a revived impetus from negotiators to reach a conciliated solution.
For all intents and purposes, the government has now shelved its Protocol Bill – a measure which would have seen the introduction of a new green and red channel system for the import and export of goods in Northern Ireland – as a gesture of goodwill to the EU.
Doing so has opened the door to the beginnings of a more productive dialogue around reaching an agreed solution which addresses the ongoing issues the Protocol presents. This is all good news.
However, as consumer confidence dips and businesses across NI are already under significant strain, perhaps now is the time for those at the negotiating table to pay greater heed to the concerns of enterprises that will ultimately bear the bulk of the burden of whatever terms are reached.
For too long, negotiations around the Protocol have failed to take a temperature check on how agreed measures will practically impact local businesses. Surely listening to the the voice of the business community early in the process can only serve to improve the overall chances of an agreed solution proving workable.
This is going to be a difficult year in global economic terms. Northern Ireland won’t be insulated from this. But businesses here have shown a resilience to date that bodes well for their prospects of weathering the oncoming difficulties.
As the noise around renewed Protocol negotiations continue, let’s hope the voices of those directly affected by the outcome won’t be drowned out.
Zara Duffy is Northern Ireland head at Chartered Accountants Ireland