Time for a reset and to embrace the optimism of spring
THE first day of March officially heralds the start of spring, although some people use the changing of the clocks later in the month as their barometer for the changing of the seasons. I go by another milestone, the arrival of St Patrick’s Day. So even though the last of the stubborn snow patches were still clinging on over the whole of the last weekend, this Friday is March 17 and it is to be hoped that we have better days ahead, and I don’t just mean with the weather.
St Patrick’s has sort of evolved in recent years to become a mini holiday, especially when it incorporates a weekend, as it does this year. At home the national Saint’s day is usually associated with a feast of sport and there is plenty to look forward to this coming weekend, with the GAA National Leagues approaching crunch time and of course the mouth watering prospect of Ireland beating England to secure a rugby Grand Slam on Saturday while horse racing enthusiasts will be keeping an eye on events at Cheltenham this week.
Some of our local political leaders will make the traditional journey to the USA to celebrate St Patrick’s Day with our American cousins and queue for photographs with President Biden. The events in Washington and New York really are something to behold as the attention paid to Ireland, all of its parts, is disproportionately high for two or three days. If anything, under Joe Biden’s leadership, the American spotlight on Northern Ireland will be brighter than ever before. Can anything useful or tangible come out of these events? Yes, it absolutely can.
These days the delegation travelling from here to the USA is made up not just of politicians and community representatives, but the business community is on board now too. All of the main business umbrella bodies will be on the plane and so will a good number of individual senior business people. That is important and interested Irish / American political representatives will want to hear from the business community what their take is on the latest developments around the protocol and the Windsor Agreement. Even having our own political leaders rubbing shoulders with business representatives for an intense few days of receptions, breakfasts, dinners, drinks and meetings will be useful.
Since the Brexit referendum the business community here found its voice. Prior to that political earthquake there had been a general consensus that it was best not to be be overtly critical of politicians or too strident on specific issues. Some firms are still too wary of upsetting the political apple cart but under the leadership of people like Stephen Kelly, Seamus Leheny and the redoubtable Ann McGregor who has announced she is stepping away from the NI Chamber of Commerce after 15 years at the helm, the genuine post Brexit concerns of businesses here were articulated factually, respectfully and firmly, just as it should be.
So to last week when the CBI in Northern Ireland published an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, although its real intended audience was Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP. The letter was signed by a number of very significant businesses here and there is no doubt that its content would be supported by the vast majority of employers. The key lines in that letter read,
“The Windsor Framework will mean that the Northern Irish economy can maximise the opportunities presented by dual access to the EU and UK markets. Now is the time for power-sharing to be restored in the Northern Ireland Executive and for political representatives to turn their attention to economic growth and delivering greater prosperity for everyone across Northern Ireland.”
The overwhelming majority of businesses here, and the wider population, support that assertion and if our politicians hear it first hand this week, at home and abroad, then all the better.
The DUP, and let’s be frank, it is over to that one party now to determine whether or not we get our Assembly and Executive up and running, have invited interested parties to make their views known on the Windsor Framework. If it is a genuine dialogue and exchange which they are offering then there is an obligation that the voice of business in Northern Ireland is taken on board. The time has come for Sir Jeffrey and colleagues to break away from the narrow, self defeating, self appointed social media gang.
The Prime Minister of course ridiculously over-sold the potential of the Framework during his manic appearance at the Coca Cola factory the day after the accord was published. However it is absolutely clear that virtually unrestricted dual access does open a path towards sustained and shared prosperity here, something which did not flow from the Good Friday Agreement in the way we all maybe assumed it would.
A return to devolution would not herald the end of all our problems but it would at least put local leaders in a place where they could attempt to begin that process.
It’s time for a reset, time to embrace the optimism of spring.
:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast