Survey: New economic strategy for north is top priority for businesses

Dual market access and restored executive offers “a once in a generation opportunity” says BDO boss

Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly
First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly speaking in Washington DC last month. Brian Murphy of BDO said the business community and politicians had successfully obtained international recognition for the north’s unique dual market access. (Niall Carson/PA)

A new economic strategy for the north should be the top priority for the executive, a new study suggests.

The latest quarterly economic survey (QES) from the Northern Ireland Chamber and business services group BDO NI, found a new direction for the economy was top of the want list for 63% of firms.

Around half (47%) said the north needs a long-term infrastructure plan, while 64% believe Westminster needs to support public spending here with a new fiscal framework.

Based on the responses of 216 businesses, the research was carried out across late February and early March.

The NI Chamber said the companies surveyed employ around 37,000 people in total.

BDO NI managing partner Brian Murphy said with the restoration of the executive, and the clarity around dual market access to EU and GB markets, means local businesses now have “a once in a generation opportunity”.

He said: “The partnership between local firms and our ministers took centre stage recently in the US, gaining international recognition and support.

Brian Murphy, managing partner, BDO NI
Brian Murphy, managing partner, BDO NI.

“The message was clear and welcomed with great enthusiasm: if you want access to the UK and EU markets, look no further than NI as the most exciting region on these islands to invest, work and live.”

But he added: “To help achieve this potential we need our new ministers to act.

“We need a fresh approach to deliver a system that reflects the realities of today and supports the planning for tomorrow.”

Chief executive of NI Chamber, Suzanne Wylie, said: “Businesses have made it clear that they need and expect strategic decision making from the NI Executive to counter low growth and increasing costs.

“These findings correlate strongly with the experiences and challenges our members across all sectors report on a daily basis and provide a very strong evidence base for our engagement with both the restored executive and UK government ministers.”

Elsewhere, the latest QES suggests one-in-four (23%) businesses in the north were either just covering the costs or at risk of closure during the first quarter (Q1) of 2024, with 69% reporting that their energy costs had increased since the end of 2023.

The research found many businesses are felling the pressure from rising labour costs, business rates and energy costs, but there were some signs the pressure may be slowly receding.

Businesses were asked in the latest QES to identify what the priorities should be for the restored NI Executive.
Businesses were asked in the latest QES to identify what the priorities should be for the restored NI Executive.

Some 77% of firms reported they were trading well or reasonably in Q1, slightly down on the 80% who reported the same during Q1 2023.

Just over half of firms (56%) reported some slowdown in demand, although for most it was only a little (49%).

Just 7% reported a significant slowdown in Q1 2024, which compared to 13% at the end of 2023.

While recruitment activity remained stable and relatively positive, 71% of businesses told the NI Chamber they were still experiencing difficulty in filling vacancies.

A separate business survey released by Ulster Bank on Monday suggests the north’s private sector improved significantly during March.

The monthly purchasing managers’ index (PMI) from the lender found the pace of growth between February and March was the fastest recorded in 25 months, indicating the Northern Ireland private sector outperformed the UK average last month.