Northern Ireland

Sunak offers Invest NI cover to fully sell protocol benefits

The UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire.
The UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire. The UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire.

If nothing else, Rishi Sunak’s enthusiastic sales visit to the north on Tuesday has gifted Invest NI’s marketing department with a slogan for its next global campaign.

‘The world’s most exciting economic zone’, may have been laying it on thick, but the prime minister’s comments could just provide the executive leadership team at the economic support agency with the cover it needs to finally stop looking the gift horse of the protocol in the mouth and actually start riding it.

The political sensitivity around the protocol, and the fact the DUP held the economy ministry at Stormont in the period since the original deal was signed, left Invest NI in a difficult position, meaning senior leaders were typically hesitant to extol its potential.

When asked directly in September 2021 whether the protocol was a key factor in Invest NI's discussions with potential foreign investors, former chief executive Kevin Holland claimed overseas investors were more interested in Northern Ireland's talent and technology than dual market access.

Mr Holland left Invest NI two months later to work for Newry-based veterinary pharmaceuticals firm Norbrook, which had no problem talking up the benefits of the protocol for its business in a written submission to the House of Lords last year.

Read More: Protocol deal expected to trigger a new wave of investment in north

It’s almost taken as granted in political circles that Sinn Féin have their eyes firmly on taking the Department for the Economy if and when the Executive is restored.

A nationalist MLA has never held the economy portfolio nor its predecessor, the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).

If Sinn Féin does manage to occupy the office almost a quarter century on from the Good Friday Agreement, then there will be no question of the message to Invest NI on the protocol/Windsor Framework.

It’s understood the agency recently strengthened its headcount in Europe, in both Germany and France. Perhaps they can see the road ahead and understand Europe will be an increasingly important factor.

Still reeling from Sir Michael Lyons’ extremely damaging report and the loss of significant European funding, could Invest NI be about to step into a new era?

The next permanent chief executive and chair of the organisation can look forward to political cover from both Stormont and London to finally put dual market access firmly front and centre of its overseas marketing.

And Rishi Sunak’s need for his deal to work means he may put his money where his mouth is and plug the financial hole Brexit has left in the Invest NI budget.

If not, at the very least he has left Invest NI with a neat video package to play around the world.