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by David Hoey

FOLLOWING THE DECISION of the UK last June to leave the EU, the Government of the United Kingdom has undertaken a great deal of work to prepare the country for triggering Article 50 on 29 March 2017. Not so much our devolved administration in Belfast.

Before the vote last year, Northern Ireland civil servants had pulled together a preliminary view on what might happen if Leave was to win the day. This paper seemed to be more concerned with the impact on the Republic of Ireland than on the opportunities presented to Northern Ireland if such an event should occur. Since then, with the decision made to Leave the EU, other than a letter to the Prime Minister, as far as is publicly visible, the Northern Ireland Executive appears to have done little of anything in preparation.

In a new report, An Agenda for Northern Ireland after Brexit, Northern Ireland business and Global Britain have collaborated to offer a policy framework of what needs to be addressed constructively and positively by all levels of government in Northern Ireland. Most importantly, Northern Ireland needs focused leadership from the Executive – time for less talk and more action.

There remains no evidence that there will be significant physical or tariff barriers to trade along the border – who in the UK or Irish Governments, or even from Brussels is suggesting otherwise? Likewise, talk about threats to the peace process is both irresponsible and wrong.

That is not to say there are not challenges ahead for the Northern Ireland economy, but many existed with or without Brexit, these include:

  • The imbalance between a small but vibrant private sector and a large, dominant and unproductive public sector.
  • International uncompetitiveness.
  • The difficulty of SMEs accessing markets and achieving profitability.
  • The lack of a culture favouring enterprise and entrepreneurship.
  • The burden he business taxes.
  • A need for more research and development.
  • Inefficiencies in the agricultural sector.
  • A fisheries that has been managed from overseas for over forty years.

Now is the time to recognise that Brexit offers opportunities to address these challenges and can bring about transformational change across the UK. For Northern Ireland’s policy makers, it could be a catalyst to look outward to the world and create a successful region that trades and exchanges ideas globally.

Urgent work needs to be focused on skills and education for Northern Ireland’s workforce, rather than over-focusing on maintaining the flow of migrant labour. It could create opportunities to reach people who have become economically inactive, alongside a strategy addressing other factors like dependency and a culture of joblessness. Any initiative of this type would be most effective if public agencies work closely with partners from the industries most closely affected.

Alongside skills and education, the added opportunities for the Executive to make progress tackling long-standing economic problems will mean encouraging local businesses trade globally, focusing on SME exports and growing markets.

In the event of tariffs being introduced by the EU, our Executive should aim to support local businesses displace EU imports into Great Britain, especially in food produce and particularly to the South East of England; the principal priority is making Northern Ireland work and grow, not protecting the interests of other countries.

With new UK trade relationships outside the EU, Northern Ireland’s “international outreach” operations need to reflect where the economic demand is, and redouble its efforts with new trade offices in targeted markets. Initiatives such as the recent placement of a new InvestNI Regional Manager in Doha, Qatar, signalled awareness of the need to expand dedicated export efforts.

Many opportunities will be generated from Whitehall initiatives. The Executive needs to be alert to emerging markets, keeping in close contract with the Department for International Trade as it negotiates new trade deals, and prepare to signpost effectively any trade push by the UK Government, after Brexit takes place.

Now is also the time to lobby the UK Government to agree a framework strategy addressing how Northern Ireland agriculture can be more sustainable and efficient in the longer-term. This must include lifting the regulatory burden on farmers by applying an “advocacy first, regulation second” approach and by placing emphasis on scientific evidence, rather than alarmist urban opinion.

Similarly with our fishing industry, the Executive needs to focus on what is required to lift the burden of regulation on Northern Irish fishermen that industry representatives say are out-dated and ineffective.

If Northern Ireland is to become truly prosperous and provide genuine opportunity for all communities it should regard leaving the EU as a springboard to establishing new export markets that will expand its private sector, creating new jobs and generate more tax revenues.

The message of this report could not be clearer. Get organised, and get out there with the trade delegations and commercial offices targeting new global opportunities. Tell the world that, outside the EU, Northern Ireland is more open to business than ever before.

The report “An Agenda for Northern Ireland after Brexit” is available on this website.

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