Speaking at the CBI Northern Ireland Annual Dinner, CBI Director-General warned about the impact of both Brexit and the absence of a functioning executive on the Northern Ireland economy.
Highlighting the latest CBI analysis, she revealed that if the Northern Ireland Executive is not restored by the end of 2019, the total loss to NI economic output could be approximately £940m.
Thank you. It’s wonderful to be back in Northern Ireland. And particularly back on Belfast’s stunning Waterfront. Where great figures such as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton – and my favourite – B.B. King have stood.
B.B. King – who always used to open his concerts with the song: ‘Every day I have the Blues’.
Well, at least he didn’t have to work on Brexit.
I last spoke in Belfast around a year ago. And since then, it feels like the pace of change in this city has been truly astonishing. Just in 12 months – new hotels, new offices, and, very close to my heart, new film studios.
Just take the Belfast Harbour studios recently opened at Giant’s Park. Yet another sign of how Belfast’s creative industries go from strength to strength.
And it’s just fantastic that Belfast has broken into the FT’s global cities of the future index for the first time.
If only the pace of change in our political world had kept pace.
Last year I said, ‘this is the time to put politics and ideology aside’. And called for government to avoid a hard Irish border. But I didn’t believe for a moment that a year on we’d be so little further forward.
- On our new relationship with the EU
- On the future of the border
- And on returning a functioning government to Stormont
And it’s precisely this absence of progress that makes it so important to speak plainly today.
Belfast is city whose history, perhaps more than any other, captures both the light and shade of recent British and Irish history. It’s a city of many stories. It has witnessed both peace and discord. Both the heights of thriving industry and the lows of deep adversity.
And these stories – from the heart of Northern Ireland communities are mirrored in Northern Ireland businesses.
In the past, the rope-makers, linen-weavers, and tobacco docks. Today, the FinTech innovators, world-class food manufacturers, and aerospace experts.
And if I can say so, it’s wonderful to see Bombardier represented so strongly here tonight. You have one of the most skilled workforces in Europe. A reputation that could not stand you in better stead as you look to a bright future for your business and people here in Belfast.
But Northern Ireland as a whole now stands at a crossroads. There is a choice to be faced. How can we, as business working with politics, build on 20 years of peace, progress, and prosperity? And how can we ensure the clock is not turned back?
As the Nobel prize winning scientist Dennis Gabor said: ‘We cannot predict the future but we can invent it.’
There is no doubt in my mind that this is a time for invention here in Northern Ireland.
We need action and solutions. We need politics to change. And it must happen with great urgency.
So I don’t want to tip-toe around the subject. At the epicentre of everything is the total gridlock over the UK’s future relationship with Europe. A perfect storm of red lines, backstops, trade, transitions, a deal, May’s-deal, no-deal, tariffs, unions, agreements.
Part of the problem is Brexit itself. Posed as a starkly binary choice from the beginning. A debate paralysed by antagonism.
But I think it’s also something deeper. Much of which long pre-dates the EU referendum. Hidden divisions and fears over identity, immigration, where power should lie.
It’s a debate across the UK. But nowhere is it sharper-edged and more poignant that here in Northern Ireland and of course at the border you share with the South, only 41 miles away.
By now we all know the stats by heart.
So business has been clear:
A hard border would be a wrecking ball for the Northern Ireland economy. According to the Home Office’s own analysis a hi-tech, automated solution to this crossing is at least 10 years away.
It’s high time everyone was plain honest about that. Which is what we, at the CBI with the invaluable support of our members, have been from the beginning. Injecting facts and evidence into the debate.
Like the analysis showing that – by 2034 – the cost of a no-deal Brexit could be equivalent to over 10% of Northern Ireland’s economy.
Like the real life examples of companies affected: Bombardier, Yardmaster, Moy Park, many others.
The vital importance of moving goods from North to South. The cost of potential tariffs.
But it’s also much more than a question of facts and figures.
20 years ago, when the border was opened, this island began to change. Political division was bridged by a new economic unity. Economists have written about it. And in the past two decades, Northern Ireland has lived it.
Business has brought jobs, prosperity, and collaboration. It has given people here, and across the border, a stake in society, in building a future.
It has brought people together in common endeavour. Prosperity is the enemy of violence. You have seen and lived this.
So to every business in this room: thank you. For everything you have done to bring prosperity, jobs, innovation, investment, to Northern Ireland.
But what’s clear is that our responsibility is far from over.
We cannot afford to keep our heads down now and wait for this all to blow over.
Angela and her team are doing all they can to ensure that does not happen.
So let me take this chance to thank Angela and her amazing team for the commitment, courage and energy they have shown, day in and day out over these past challenging months. It could not be more appreciated.
Restoring the NI Executive
But business can only go so far alone. And we are only able to raise our voice if there are those ready to listen.
Here in Northern Ireland, we’re missing something vital. A Northern Irish Executive.
Political impasse has now left this nation without a functioning government for more than 860 days.
It’s a world record – the longest peacetime government deadlock in history. Not a record to celebrate.
Now, I’ve spent my career in business. I’ve have been lucky to meet some of the most successful and enterprising businesses out there. And let me tell you – no business would succeed if it took the same approach to decision making as our politicians are doing right now.
In boardrooms everywhere, leaders face differences of opinion and robust disagreement. Over where to invest, who to hire, how to run their company.
But for the successful among them, stalemate simply is not an option. They have no choice but to reach consensus. Even on the hardest of decisions.
So today, I have a message to those embarking on power sharing talks here in Belfast:
Why not take a leaf from the business rulebook?
Compromise. Find common ground. It’s always there if you look hard enough for it.
And I will say this. You bear a historic responsibility. Because the cost of failure would be intolerable for this nation.
In fact, we now know just how intolerable. Because today, we published new research. It shows that, if the stalemate lasts until the end of 2019, this will have cost Northern Ireland almost £1 billion.
This morning I was in Dublin. Where the economy tells a different story. More than 7% GDP growth last year – seven times the growth rate here in the North. With its functioning government, the South exports more in a single month, than Northern Ireland does in a year.
And young people are almost 50% more likely to hold a level 3 qualification.
This must be a wake-up call. The North needs to catch up.
We as business are committed to making this happen and with the ambition of leapfrogging beyond in years to come.
Just think of the recent scale of investment by companies like Allstate, Citi, BT and Liberty IT. Imagine what could be achieved with a functioning executive.
And as the clock ticks on, day after day, what was once pressing has now become desperately urgent.
Levers for growth
But before I close I’d like to fast forward to the future and end with a dose of pragmatism and optimism. About what needs to and can happen once an executive is back in place.
Two top priorities.
The first is strategic, long term investment.
It’s a simple idea – that what we invest in now, upgrading roads, connecting our energy networks, educating our young people, will pay off ten-fold, or a hundred-fold, in the long run.
In some areas, the right steps are being taken.
It’s good news that, earlier this month, the UK government announced a new £100 million city deal for the North West.
It comes on top of the £350 million Belfast City Deal.
A powerful commitment to growth in Northern Ireland.
But more powerful still would be to see this commitment matched by a restored power-sharing government, working in partnership with the private sector.
Business and government together. Meeting the challenges of the century with the partnership of the century.
The second priority must be to support and champion Northern Ireland’s great universities. They do so much more than offer education and training.
They act as community hubs. They drive exports and local investment. They attract overseas students. They fuel innovation and create jobs.
In short, they are important economic players in their own right.
So often, it’s not just businesses – but universities that do much of the heavy lifting to prepare for the future economy. And business must support them in this task.
Some of this comes down to the right funding. But earlier this week our CBI team here in Belfast sat down with our local Vice Chancellors (present here tonight).
And our call to business is this:
Work with your local universities. Help shape their courses. Offer their students industry placements. Share knowledge, support their research. To ensure these great universities can continue to compete nationally and globally and ensure we do all we can to prepare the next generation for the changing world of work.
So let me end by saying this. Modern Northern Ireland stands as a great testament to those who negotiated peace 20 years ago. And to everyone, from all walks of life, who has replaced division with reconciliation.
So let us not now see power sharing talks here in Belfast break down into further stalemate and deadlock.
I believe all of us in this room have good reason to be optimistic. Because business in Northern Ireland is speaking up like never before. And it is has shown what it can bring to this nation.
It’s the business voice that will help protect our open border. It’s the business voice that will continue to provide facts and economic evidence in the debate over Europe. And it’s the business voice that will shape the policies that work for Northern Ireland’s people and its future prosperity.
So, thank you for being part of that voice. For supporting all of us at the CBI so strongly with your ideas, your vision and your ambition.
There could not be a better time for us together to invent the future.
 Source: CSO/Macrobond
 £5 billion potential annual loss to Northern Ireland’s GDP of a no-deal Brexit by 2034.
 CBI analysis - £939 million
 2018 growth. Source: CSO (Ireland), ESCoE (Northern Ireland)