ANGELA McGOWAN: ‘Can do’ attitude will steer us through storms to better conditions

MAKING HIS POINT: Hilary Benn at the business breakfast Q&A with CBI NI director Angela McGowan
MAKING HIS POINT: Hilary Benn at the business breakfast Q&A with CBI NI director Angela McGowan

THE Northern Ireland business community’s ‘can do’ attitude and resilience are its greatest strength, especially during the current political and economic headwinds.

This was apparent as CBI members battled through Storm Babet to reach the Culloden Hotel in late October to hear new Shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn address the CBI Northern Ireland annual business breakfast, where 200 business leaders, politicians and other stakeholders gathered to hear his thoughts on Northern Ireland’s economic and political prospects.

While we couldn’t showcase Northern Irish weather at its best, the reception afforded Mr Benn was at least warm. Guests were keen hear the Labour front bench spokesperson’s views on growth in devolved economies and his thoughts on political relationships between the UK, Ireland and the EU, given the region’s special trading arrangements.

Mr Benn delivered a punchy speech covering the importance of skills and further and higher education, delivering on the key infrastructure projects, Northern Ireland’s ability to meet net zero targets and the unique access to both the EU and GB markets.

The audience also heard from Emma McAliskey, chief financial officer at Viberoptix, whose positive business story was a great scene-setter (in the last three years the company has expanded from just 20 staff to over 600). Viberoptix is a hugely dynamic firm that delivers front-line services to fibre networks providers across the UK and Ireland and improve connectivity, but is also making huge strides in attracting women into its engineering apprenticeship programmes.

Mr Benn’s enthusiasm for carbon reduction also hit all the right notes for companies in the room such as Indaver, whose objective is to support the transition to a circular economy, where waste is seen as a valuable source of materials and energy, and The Maxol Group, an all-island business that has made significant investments in EV rapid charging facilities.

The CBI event took place a few days before the NI Special Envoy Joe Kennedy III made his third recent trip to Northern Ireland and the US Consul-General James Appleby’s presence at the CBI’s business breakfast was a reminder of Northern Ireland’s strategic importance to the US administration.

Local FE colleges and universities must have been pleased to hear the Shadow Secretary of State highlight the importance of skills and further and higher education – quoting former Prime Minister Tony Blair in the 1990s, he alluded to the “education, education, education” commitment that the Labour Party has traditionally championed.

Mr Benn also touched on the need for a functioning Executive and the importance of decisions being made at a local level by local politicians. In the Q&A that followed his speech, the message was clear - this is a critical time for business to have strong political leadership. With weak global growth and firms struggling with higher energy, fuel and borrowing costs, Northern Ireland needs political leadership as well as strong collaboration between government and business.

Companies see a slowdown in demand coming from the US, Europe and Asia. Higher interest rates to address the post-Covid inflation problem are taking their toll – consumers have consistently tightened their belts this year and companies are looking closely at costs, inventory levels and working capital. It is interesting that many local firms require fewer staff as production levels drop – but are reluctant to let good workers go. They don’t want to be left with too few employees when orders pick up. However, some companies are releasing contract workers or not replacing staff as they retire or resign.

In recent weeks, firms have also been reporting that automation and robotics are all very well in theory, but not so easy in practice. One firm told me that they have been working on prototypes for 18 months – and they still cannot get the robotic machine to do exactly what they need. The cost of robotics and new technology is an issue too, and having enough space in production facilities can prove to be another added headache. To move to automation and embed new technology, firms say they need people with technical expertise – and they are finding those specific skills are very hard to find. Ultimately, a supply of good labour remains a top priority.

I must caveat this little bit of ‘robotics negativity’ with recognition that other technology developments such as AI or photonics advancements have been a game-changer for other sectors. Understanding where and how technology can improve productivity and lead to better ways of doing things and knowing when it is not going to solve every problem is an area that government needs to better understand. The UK government is seeking answers at this week’s AI summit at Bletchley Park. We need to ensure the technology is a force for improving the way we do business, while understanding its limitations and potential.

One sector where we know AI cannot replace humans is in hospitality – and on that note, I must finish by giving a shout out to Hastings Hotels for the robust five-star service we received at the Culloden. This is a sector that sees good times ahead - with the recent announcement that the joint UK-Ireland Euro 2028 men’s football tournament will come to Belfast and that The Open will return to Portrush in 2025. Challenges remain, but opportunities are always on the horizon.

:: Angela McGowan is director of CBI Northern Ireland