Ambition must be at the heart of the new Executive

Press Releases 13 Feb 2024

Writing in the Belfast Newsletter, Alan Lowry, FSB`s Northern Ireland Policy Chair, says that if NI Executive Ministers accept the offer of collaboration with business stakeholders, then it can deliver long term policy change that will see Northern Ireland really thrive

[This article was first published in the Belfast Newsletter on Tuesday 13th February 2024]

Last week, Stormont’s doors opened and we finally saw the performance. Captured by television cameras from around the world, Northern Ireland reinstated its government, with Ministers, a Speaker and his deputies, Committee Chairs, and more. 

It was the culmination of fifteen months of choreography that began with Rishi Sunak taking over as Prime Minister, negotiations with Ursula Von Der Leyen, then the Windsor Framework. This was followed by further easements when the Joint Committee confirmed that Northern Ireland could take full advantage of UK trade deals; the publication of a Command Paper that offered many more undertakings; a large budget contribution; and visits by the premiers of both the UK and Republic of Ireland to wish the new team well in their endeavours.

While the choreography was immense, it will be dwarfed by the Herculean challenge awaiting Ministers, with every Department looking for money. Ministers tease the public with what they would like to do……if there’s enough cash. The process of getting this political marriage agreed did, indeed, come with a £3.3 billion dowry but, to coin a phrase, “A billion here and a billion there, and soon you’re talking serious money”.

To put £3.3bn in context, there are around 770,000 households in Northern Ireland and, were we to raise that sum from them, it would equate to over £4,000 each, on top of the rates they already pay. It’s an immense amount of money and, as one of the least well-off UK regions, the prospect of raising it here seems unattainable. So what’s to be done? 

If it were a business, two key things would happen. Expenditure would be controlled and income would be grown.  Our Executive needs to get better value out of what it currently spends and to raise more revenue. However, the real skill comes in doing as little damage as possible, coupled with doing lasting good in the process.

There must be a relentless focus on supporting business to thrive, as the only sustainable way of delivering a vibrant society is through earned income that business generates, which flows into the local economy providing jobs, local taxes, and more. Businesses elsewhere in the UK have seen assistance in successive budgets, such as discounts to their non-domestic rates as government seeks to help them to grow the economy. We haven’t seen the same support provided here because there hasn’t been a Minister to take the decision. So, far from seeing business rates as a mechanism to raise revenue, the Executive must move to level the playing field and provide substantial discounts for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses. While there may be a short-term cost, in terms of revenue foregone, this action will serve to grow the vibrant town centres that our society values and needs.

Ministers must also tackle the twin scourge of labour shortages and economic inactivity by developing and funding an effective childcare strategy. At present, childcare is regulated by both the Department of Education and the Health Department in a bizarre and inefficient duplication of process that has its roots in the mists of time. It must be reformed and a properly resourced system implemented as a matter of urgency.

These are just two in a long list of priorities for the Executive. Its return will not be a panacea for all of society`s problems, but what it can do is to start implementing policy to address them, so that in coming years we can look back on positive economic, social and cultural progress whose foundations were laid this month.

The Command Paper teased us with some exciting measures to help drive our economy forward. If we are truly to have ‘the best of both worlds’ then its offer to work with our new Finance Minister to devolve and cut Corporation Tax is one we mustn’t squander. If we seize the opportunity it will not only compensate manufacturers for the extra bureaucracy associated with having to use the Red Lane, but it will really underscore our global offering of unfettered access to the huge UK and EU markets, underpinned by lower Corporation Tax that is fully 10% or more lower than the rest of the UK. That’s an enticing offer!

But it won`t just be down to one or two departments to deliver these priorities; it will be achieved through collaborative cross-departmental work. If our Ministers accept the offer from business stakeholders to contribute to the strategy, then long term policy change can be delivered that will see Northern Ireland really thrive.