Delivering her speech at the British Irish Chamber of Commerce Annual Gala Dinner ahead of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the CBI Director-General argued that shared prosperity across the island of Ireland is at stake if a Brexit deal is not agreed and power-sharing at Stormont not restored.
Outlining the serious consequences if this double pressure were not resolved and the urgent need for politicians to find workable solutions, she called for a “moment of historic political leadership” of the kind demonstrated during the negotiations of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and Good Friday Agreement.
Good evening, thank you for that warm welcome.
And thank you to the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, for your invitation to speak tonight.
Your terrific mission, ‘To promote and celebrate trade across our two islands,’ has never been more relevant. And we at the CBI could not share it more strongly.
It’s an honour too to be here with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: a friend to business through the tough and the good times.
Taoiseach, your commitment to the Good Friday Agreement is so welcome and so vital for business. Not only here on this island, north and south but for both our islands, our ties East and West. It’s a partnership that really does run deep.
We share a belief in business as a true force for good. The jobs, opportunity and prosperity it can bring, not just within our separate nations but between them as well.
And for all these reasons, I am delighted and honoured to be here.
Now, I don’t have to tell any of you about the crisis that is engulfing the UK and the EU too over Brexit.
I won’t rehash the politics, the dramas, the very personal stories. Or try to predict where political events will take us. Others are far better placed than I am to do this.
My job is to stay in the business lane. To speak for the 190 thousand UK firms the CBI represents. To ensure the truth about the economy is heard and not buried.
And, when needed, to make demands of our politicians that matter for jobs and livelihoods. So, no surprises, it is exactly this ground I’d like to cover this evening, starting with the business truth about Brexit.
The latest business truths about Brexit
In the past two weeks, I’ve spoken to hundreds of businesses across the UK about Brexit, up close and personal.
I heard from manufacturing, services, retail, education, tech. Firms of all sizes, from start-up to multinational. From Glasgow and Leeds, Leicester and London, and many places in between.
My final stop was a glorious sunny Belfast. The messages were clear. Leaving the UK without a deal would cause great harm to many firms.
Irreversible damage to their competitiveness. Businesses are preparing for no-deal and they should. But preparation is not the same thing as protection. Far from it.
There are costs: tariffs, customs fees, lost talent, that simply cannot be managed, that are unavoidable blows to their business.
Many told me they are rebuilding stocks at great and wasteful cost yet again for No Deal – but it is mitigation – as one member said to me, sandbags against the floodwaters.
They are also clear that a No deal outcome brings no certainty at all. Far from being the glorious moment of clarity that some claim, it is the opposite.
The endless debate over tariffs, borders and regulation would continue but newly toxified against a backdrop of heightened ill will. It could go on for years.
As one member put it to me – No deal is not a cliff edge with its evocative imagery of weightless freedom. It is a swamp.
Business has been clear on the evidence for the past three years.
Some cry ‘project fear’. But not here. Not on the island of Ireland.
If people want on-the-ground evidence, then Northern Ireland provides the starkest examples.
In Belfast, I heard from companies in Armagh, Tyrone, Antrim and beyond. They tell a unique story about the Northern Ireland economy. It is unusually rich in farming, food manufacturing, dairy, agri-businesses. Worth £4.5 billion to the North every year.
These are goods that can’t be stockpiled. So, one of the main techniques for preparation is just not possible.
It is an economy made up of small firms – 90% of companies have fewer than 10 employees.
In many cases, independent, or family-run and who just don’t have the resources of larger corporations to get ready. They are then woven into supply chains only as strong as the least prepared link.
And of course, there’s your shared border. Where, for the past two decades, goods and people have become intertwined.
Thousands of goods vehicles cross the border each day. Thousands of people a day, able to move freely from North to South, to the benefit of both.
Together, these characteristics, distinct to Northern Ireland mean that communities across this nation, many already among the poorest parts of the UK, will be uniquely, and unfairly, vulnerable to the economic hardship of no-deal.
And we know too, that the impact on the economy here in the South could be very serious too.
I am deliberately not touching on the implications for peace again others are so much better placed to comment. But what couldn’t be plainer is that, on the economics alone, we are talking about a monumental act of harm to jobs and livelihoods.
Impact of the events of the last few days: Nothing and everything has changed
So, have the past few days made a difference? Well, there is a chink of light. The vast majority of firms prefer delay to no deal.
But it is only a chink.
While the clock may appear to stop from time to time, for business it just keeps ticking, particularly as a UK general election within weeks feels almost inevitable.
Until a deal is agreed, firms will continue to divert millions of pounds from productive investment to no-deal preparation
and international investors will continue to question whether the UK is the stable open place to do business it once was.
So, for all the sound and fury of the last few days, for business not much has changed. And the risk of no-deal remains firmly on a very large table.
No deal and no Executive
And let me make a final point about the unique challenges for Northern Ireland. That is the lack of a functioning executive in Stormont.
Because for Northern Ireland, there is something worse than no-deal. And that is no-deal and no government.
The North’s economy is already being held back. For almost three years, decision making has been paralysed, while elsewhere in the UK, others are moving ahead, driving forward investment, upgrading roads, infrastructure.
By the end of the year, the deadlock in Stormont will have cost Northern Ireland almost £1bn. Add to this the cost of no-deal: a potential £5bn by 2034. No-deal and no government would be a devastating combination for Northern Ireland.
This is an outcome that must be averted. And there is so much to play for if it can be.
New opportunities in technology, healthcare, and education. Connected transport – road and rail – across North and South, enterprise-led.
The unprecedented potential of an all-island economy. Improving lives and tackling deprivation in all its forms.
A true deal dividend that generations across the island will enjoy for decades to come.
But first, we need some answers.
So, let me end with what it is that business wants and needs from its political leaders. What it is that will avert an economic crisis in Northern Ireland and protect jobs across Europe.
It is very simple. They want a negotiated settlement. They want to move into a transition period of stability to enable a longer-term agreement. They want Brexit to become boring. About working groups and trade papers, not headlines and political crisis. Sending people to sleep not to protest on our streets.
So that firms can get on with what they do best: creating jobs and opportunities, delivering great products and services, helping pay for schools and hospitals.
And above all, at this time of all times, business asks its politicians to keep talking. The biggest risk of all is no communication. Folded arms. Standoff and misunderstanding. It fails every time.
And in those conversations, we ask for political leaders, on all sides, to reach for flexibility. Seek the common ground, however small the patch of turf may be.
It has been done before. We saw it in the extraordinary leadership of the 1980s and 90s, right here in Ireland. First with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, of 1985. And a decade later: the Good Friday Agreement.
In the face of seemingly intractable partisanship, committed leaders found workable solutions.
This country was once a symbol of conciliation, against the odds. From the heart of business to the heart of politics, we ask leaders on all sides to revive that moment now.
The stakes could not be higher.