‘Time to reset and prioritise progress’ urges Chamber head

NI Chamber of Commerce
Cathal Geoghegan, president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. (Kelvin Boyes)

The head of the north’s biggest business body has called on political leaders to redouble their efforts to restore the Stormont Executive, based on a new fiscal framework which supports both the stabilisation and transformation of public services, catalyses green growth and priorities economic prosperity for all.

NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Cathal Geoghegan, in a wide-ranging New Year statement, has urged party leaders and Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris to maintain the momentum gathered in the most recent talks and reach agreement as early as possible in 2024.

And he insisted that “this must be the year when we commit to real progress and long-term transformation in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Geoghegan said: “While it is a source of significant regret that we begin another new year without an Executive, businesses remain hopeful that the coming weeks will see the devolved institutions restored.

“These weeks are crucial because getting this right is a prize that could drive our competitiveness on this island, as a region of the UK and on the global stage, to the next level.

“Upon restoration of the institutions, we expect to see an agreed Programme for Government at the earliest opportunity which delivers investment in our future; in skills and education, innovation, infrastructure and green growth.”

On finding solutions to the north’s fiscal challenges, he went on: “With so many competing priorities and demands, managing the public finances and addressing public sector pay will be the greatest immediate challenges an incoming power-sharing Executive will face.

“We welcome that the UK government has accepted the principle of a needs-based funding model for Northern Ireland. But when it comes to meeting the substantial costs of stabilisation and transformation, it is imperative that the approach takes into consideration all of the fiscal levers available to Northern Ireland.

Locked gates at Stormont in Belfast. Picture by Niall Carson/PA
NI Chamber president Cathal Geoghegan has urged party leaders and Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris to maintain the momentum gathered in the most recent talks and get Stormont back in operation Picture by Niall Carson/PA

“We are clear that the transformation of public services demands action and leadership from an Executive and we agree that effective accountability structures need to be put in place.”

Mr Geoghegan added: “The challenge demands that other forms of fiscal freedoms and incentives are included, such as the structure of some arms-length organisations, the ability to borrow and other fiscal policies to support growth.

“We also consider that a short, sharp independent assessment of the efficiency and effectiveness of public services is vital. That must be the starting point if we are to comprehensively identify precisely where wastage, ineffectiveness and inefficiency exists in the current system and what kind of transformation would lead to the most significant cost savings and tangibly better outcomes.”

Looking beyond the fiscal challenges, Mr Geoghegan laid out a number of immediate priorities for any new Executive in the year ahead - and top of the list are measures to help businesses meet their sustainability ambitions and grow exports, a focus on boosting competitiveness and help to develop productive and resilient workforces of the future.

He believes that helping businesses to grow through exports will be a key driver of economic growth, adding: “Encouraging firms to realise their export potential and grow internationally is central to the creation of a 10X Economy. Dual market access provides NI businesses with a distinct competitive advantage, as a trading gateway to the EU and Great Britain. We must make a concerted effort to capitalise on that position in high-growth sectors such as health and life science and advanced manufacturing. That’s very pertinent as we work towards the next implementation phase of the Windsor Framework arrangements in October 2024, when clear guidance and process efficiency will be important.”

With only six years left to meet 2030 net zero targets, he stressed why creating the conditions for public and private sector investment is crucial.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is facing growing pressure to reach a deal on public sector pay ahead of major strike action on Thursday.
Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris must maintain the momentum gathered in the most recent talks and reach agreement as early as possible in 2024, NI Chamber president Cathal Geoghegan insists (Liam McBurney/PA)

He said: “Green growth presents businesses with challenge and opportunity in almost equal measure. Right now, there is a wall of green capital building up ready to invest but to do so, we need action from the Executive on areas including planning and green skills investment.

“A Programme for Government created in partnership with business that prioritised the transition should be a tool to unlock that much needed investment. Without it, the money and the opportunity will simply go elsewhere.

“On the specific issue of planning, there is now growing consensus within the business community about the need to deliver significant improvement to the system. That is going to require a combination cultural and system improvements, legislative and regulatory changes and ensuring that in future, the planning system is held to account for its performance.

“Businesses in both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland are set to benefit from the implementation of reforms, so we need to act quickly to stop Northern Ireland losing out on potentially game changing investment opportunities. This will be a key focus for NI Chamber in 2024.”

In Northern Ireland, lack of access to affordable childcare remains a significant barrier to business growth, but it is still the only part of the UK without a dedicated Childcare Strategy.

The Chamber president says this is the year that needs to change, saying: “Sustainable, inclusive business growth demands that we do better for working parents and the childcare sector. Currently, the issues are made more acute by the absence of an ambitious Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland.

“Whilst business is playing its part in exploring ways of developing the existing workplace nursery model, there is much that a restored Executive could do. Making this a priority will be a vital component in tackling our productivity challenges and addressing labour and skills shortages.”

Mr Geoghegan also believes that reforming the apprenticeship model is key to resolving the skills challenge, saying: “We need a restored Executive to once and for all deliver on the apprenticeship levy by bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK. Given the persistent issues with our skills deficit, we also need to consider whether Northern Ireland needs a dedicated Skills Bill.”