Deirdre Heenan: With no government, no-one in charge and no stability, Rishi Sunak's NI investment summit is a sham

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pictured during a visit to a factory in Lisburn in February as he tried to promote the Windsor Framework. Next week's investment summit, linked to the UK and EU trade deal, looks likely to be a damp squib
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pictured during a visit to a factory in Lisburn in February as he tried to promote the Windsor Framework. Next week's investment summit, linked to the UK and EU trade deal, looks likely to be a damp squib

We are just days away from the Northern Ireland Investment Summit due to take place on September 12 and 13. According to the NI Office over 100 global investors have confirmed their attendance at this event which will promote local opportunities "to one of the largest groups of global investors and businesses ever seen in Northern Ireland".

This summit was first mooted by the prime minister on his fleeting visit to Belfast to welcome the US president Joe Biden. Mr Sunak said he was "relentlessly focused" on supporting economic growth in Northern Ireland, describing it as "the biggest thing" he could do to improve people's standard of living and secure a prosperous future.

This event is designed to showcase the best of what the north has to offer, focusing on innovation and technological strengths. According to the UK government this major investment conference will provide the "rocket fuel for business expansion".

The UK investment minister, Lord Dominic Johnson, effusively claimed that it would be a catalyst for businesses here to launch into new frontiers across technology, finance and beyond.

Hosted by the British government, it will also highlight the efforts of US special envoy Joe Kennedy III.

It was originally envisaged that this international summit would coincide with the return of the Stormont government and the implementation of the Windsor Framework. In February Sunak eulogised the "unique" and "privileged" position that Northern Ireland could enjoy by having access to both the EU and UK markets.

He boasted that it could become "the world's most exciting economic zone", an incredibly attractive place for businesses to invest. This conference would help to realise his ambition to bring more inward investment into Northern Ireland's "thriving economy".

The circumstances are not exactly what had been hoped for and are hardly conducive to securing significant inward investment. We have no government, no prospect of government and there is no agreement on the economic proposition that we are promoting.

This event has been described by enthusiasts as a shop window for Northern Ireland. Really? Are we simply to ignore the fact that the shop has no management, and we are not sure what we are selling?

This event runs the risk of becoming a national embarrassment. Rather than showcasing the talent and ingenuity of Northern Ireland, the eyes of the world will be on the continuing dysfunction.

How can we expect investors to take a punt on a place without stability or certainty? Are we simply going to pretend that this is normal?

With the best will in the world, it is difficult to see how anyone could extol the virtues of this region without addressing the elephant in the room.

The rationale for this conference was to showcase the dual market access offered in this region, the so-called "best of both worlds". The Windsor Framework would chart a new way forward and address the difficulties associated with the Northern Ireland Protocol. The DUP's ongoing protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements mean that stagnation and decay are the order of the day. Instead of recognising and addressing this abysmal position, the UK government have instead decided to press ahead with this "showcase".

It is a sham. There is no dedicated website, it is impossible to ascertain what is being planned and how to get involved. Just days away from the conference details are scant.

It appears to be a joint venture between the NIO, the Department for Levelling Up, the Department for Business and Trade and Number 10. This lack of clear ownership does not augur well.

The complexity and absence of appropriate oversight make it seem like a box ticking exercise. What are the objectives? What will it deliver? What will success look like? No-one seems to know.

This could have been so different; an opportunity to show that Northern Ireland has turned a corner and the future is bright. Instead the DUP are missing in action and failing to capitalise on the interest and support that their cherished UK government were prepared to show.

The business community and their representatives are caught in the crossfire. They have demonstrated remarkable leadership and resilience through the lengthy, fraught Brexit negotiations, the global pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

On the one hand they rightly stress that we cannot afford to squander any opportunity to promote inward investment and economic growth. Global relationships and mutually beneficial networks are an essential prerequisite to delivering benefits for all. The show must go on.

Yet on the other hand, the business-as-usual attitude normalises the dysfunction and the political barriers to progress. It gives cover to those who have no interest in governing.

Businesses are built on relationships and in a small place like Northern Ireland, no-one wants to burn their bridges by making political statements. People fear reprisals if they make their feelings known. Speaking out can have negative consequences, so it's best not to point the finger, just keep your head down and carry on.

The upshot of this unwillingness to acknowledge uncomfortable truths is a prevailing culture of silence across Northern Ireland society. Community, voluntary and business groups play an essential role in civil society but are often dependent on government funding and support. This stifles their ability to comment and engage in public debate.

In a post-conflict society avoiding being perceived as partisan is highly valued. However, every community, irrespective of political affiliation, deserves the right to prosper and thrive.

If one party is holding us to ransom, then the price that we are paying should be spelt out at every single opportunity.