It's no joke for small, micro, and self-employed businesses

Michael McQuillan, chief executive of ENI, pictured at the launch of the 2023 barometer findings with MLAs Conor Murphy and Doug Beattie
Michael McQuillan, chief executive of ENI, pictured at the launch of the 2023 barometer findings with MLAs Conor Murphy and Doug Beattie

THE latest NI Enterprise barometer was launched to key stakeholders at The Dunadry Hotel last week just hours after the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

And with Peter Robinson’s comments lighting a touchpaper under hopes for a return to Stormont, it was an interesting time to be in a room full of people so invested in driving economic growth here.

Yet, sadly, as I spoke, I could not help but see a rather large elephant making its way stealthily into the back of the room. Its name? April 1 2025.

For when we wake on that date, the joke will be very much on us, as all of the critical Levelling Up funding that sustains so much of our support for small, micro, and self-employed businesses will have disappeared. Gone. And no one is talking about what is coming next.

We are a small and micro business economy. So, this is not just a business issue. This is about preserving the very essence of community life in Northern Ireland.

Those of us trying to work in partnership, to deliver the best support we can to small local businesses, now find ourselves caught in an absurd situation.

On the one hand, we have just launched a comprehensive enterprise support service, Go Succeed, in partnership with councils. On the other hand, we find ourselves in a situation, where only 16 months from now, and with the maelstrom of a UK general election in between, no further funding to support this work has been promised.

Government departments, local government, and key stakeholders such as Enterprise NI must now work together to avoid this cliff edge.

There are more than 140,000 businesses here in Northern Ireland and 99.2% of those are micro, small, or self-employed companies.

Not only are they the backbone of future broad-based growth and prosperity, but with 73% of barometer respondents based outside of our cities in Northern Ireland, they are also a cornerstone of our communities.

By their very nature, they need access to specific small business support, powered by local knowledge. Some 77% of barometer respondents told us they had sought external advice or support in the last year. Yet, now, that lifeline of support hangs in the balance.

There has never been a more important time for Northern Ireland to have its first dedicated Entrepreneurship Strategy.

One with future entrepreneurs at its heart, and one that must be based around strong structured partnerships to ensure we can deliver more impact, with less and avoid duplication of support.

For 23 years, Enterprise NI and our network of 27 Local Enterprise Agencies have been championing partnerships and birthing business success stories across our 64 locations.

We’ve been proud to play our part in keeping NI’s economic prosperity well topped up, but should we not see a dedicated Entrepreneurship Strategy, supported by a strong funding stream, in place soon, then that vital well is at risk of running out.

And you know what they say - you never miss the water ‘til the well runs dry.

:: Michael McQuillan is chief executive of Enterprise NI