Dual market access ‘can help reverse brain drain’ says business boss

CBI chief executive Rain Newton-Smith due to address 400 business leaders in Belfast

Rain Newton-Smith, chief executive of the CBI (Ian Brodie/©iBRODIEfoto)

The north’s unique position of having open access to both GB and EU markets has the potential to reverse the brain drain, according to the chief executive of business body the CBI.

Rain Newton-Smith was speaking to the Irish News ahead of an address to 400 guests at the organisation’s annual lunch in Belfast - its first for two years after the 2023 event was cancelled amidst a crisis which followed a series of misconduct allegations.

She was on her first official engagement in Northern Ireland since being appointed to the lead role in June.

Ms Newton-Smith said dual market access “absolutely puts this place in a unique position and adds to the mood of optimism which has followed the restoration of the Stormont administration.

“But Northern Ireland needs to make the most of it and think about how it attracts not just investment but people.

“Our young people often leave here and don’t come back. There’s a chance to change that and make the most of the opportunities dual access will bring.”

She also insisted there were opportunities for businesses in Northern Ireland in the “green sector”, given that the UK’s net zero economy grew by 9% in 2023 in contrast to stagnation in the wider economy, which grew by just 0.1%.

“Overall, this sector was responsible for the production of £74 billion in goods and services and 765,000 jobs UK-wide last year, so that underlines there’s a real opportunity here.

“But it will take investment and clear policy by the Executive and other devolved administrations across the UK.”

She added: “There are tough decisions to make, whether it’s here in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK.

Rain Newton-Smith spoke to Irish News business editor Gary McDonald ahead of Friday's CBI lunch in Belfast

“Public finances are under acute pressure, particularly here.

“We do need to see major investment in our infrastructure, so spending will have to be done wisely and really focused on the areas that will improve people’s quality of life and create an environment for business where they can invest and grow and create opportunities for young people.

“Ultimately it’s through business investment and growth that helps to lead to higher taxes and fund those bigger investment projects.”

Ms Newton-Smith said that after a “difficult year” for the organisation she believes the CBI has renewed itself.

“Today we have 170,000 members, 150 trade associations and 1,100 direct members, and it’s a privilege to be able to speech on behalf of those businesses. It’s a privilege we take very seriously.

“We are a resilient organisation and have put in place work to show that we really believe in the culture we have here.

“And it’s been brilliant over the last six months to be back talking to politicians across the UK and setting out some of these economic issues we must face.”