Chamber chief Ann McGregor calls for 'meaningful debate' on how Northern Ireland is funded

NI Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ann McGregor
NI Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ann McGregor

THERE needs to be a meaningful debate on how Northern Ireland is funded, the head of a leading business organisation has said.

Ann McGregor, chief executive of the NI Chamber of Commerce, also called for an urgent return of the Executive, with a number of Stormont departments facing budget difficulties.

On Monday the Department for the Economy (DfE) said a number of sectors are facing cuts as it deals with a funding deficit of £130 million.

The department also said its officials have been asked to examine the revenue-raising potential of increasing university student fees in Northern Ireland to £7,000.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris recently set a budget for the north in the absence of devolved ministers at Stormont, where several departments have since said they are facing significant monetary challenges.

The Department of Health said it is facing a shortfall of £470 million while the Department of Infrastructure said its budget pressures may result in street-lights being turned off and roads not being gritted in winter.

The Department for Communities said it is facing a £111.2 million resource funding gap, 15.5 per cent short of what it needs.

Ms McGregor said the budget allocation given to the DfE, which is responsible for skills, further education, higher education, tourism and economic development, "lays bare the long-term economic challenges" Northern Ireland faces.

She added: "From driving green growth to showcasing Northern Ireland as a place to work, visit and invest, this budget will impact upon every facet of our economy.

"It also risks exacerbating long-standing structural challenges, such as tackling the skills deficit.

"NI Chamber has consistently highlighted that this is not a one-off challenge.

"We urgently need an Executive restored to agree and implement its priorities at pace.

"But we also need a meaningful debate on how Northern Ireland is funded from Westminster to put us on a pathway to transformation."

Her equivalent in Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, Anna Doherty said the budget allocation "makes for extremely grim reading" for the economy and will have serious and concerning ramifications for the region's ability to attract investment, support and nurture start-ups and budding entrepreneurs, and create an economy fit for the future.

She said: “Cuts to our further and higher education budgets are particularly troubling, given their importance in ensuring we have a quality pipeline of talent and skills coming through for our businesses. 

“While local power-sharing is not a silver bullet which will fix Northern Ireland’s fiscal position overnight, the ongoing absence of an Executive is having an undeniable effect on the day-to-day running of the country, so we again urge local parties to do all they can to restore the Stormont institutions and appeal to the UK Government to grant further funds and extra leniency to address this crisis.”

Meanwhile Tourism NI is facing a £9 million cut in funding - about a third of its budget last time - which it said would impact on investment in events, marketing and capital development.

A spokesman added: "Northern Ireland is very likely to lose out to other destinations just as our visitor numbers are rebounding.

"We will continue to find ways to make resources go further, working closely with our partners to mitigate the effects of the budget reduction on the sector."