Relaxations to coronavirus restrictions have thankfully enabled the return of conferences and other ‘in-person’ events. While platforms like Zoom and Teams have been successful in allowing us to continue to connect with staff and network, sometimes there is no substitute for an event which enables spontaneous engagement to take place. The Balmoral Show is a key date in the Northern Ireland calendar, not just for farming and agri-food but for the wider business sector, political engagement and indeed for families just to have a good time. The Show was back on this year, though taking place in September, rather than in May, as is traditional. It was great to be able to walk around the Show and engage with businesses directly and hear what their issues. For many food businesses they are simultaneously seeing advantages with the Northern Ireland Protocol - namely unfettered access to the GB market and EU for their products - but also disadvantages with the barriers placed on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. This demonstrates that even within the same sector there can be nuances in terms of the experience.
There was also some nervousness expressed about the impact of planned climate legislation on farming and agri-food businesses. With two rival climate bills going through the Assembly, it remains to be seen what climate target Northern Ireland will set. There is some discussion that negotiations will take place and we may end up with a merger between the Bill spearheaded by the Green Party Leader, Clare Bailey, and that brought forward by the DAERA Minister Edwin Poots. From FSB’s perspective, regardless of the target, or which Bill is successful, we want to see consideration of small businesses ‘hard-wired’ into legislation through adoption of statutory Small and Micro Business Impact Tests (SAMBIT). This would place the requirement to consider small businesses on a statutory footing when making climate policy.
Autumn, while best known for longer nights and fallen leaves, is also synonymous with Party conference season. As part of my UK wide responsibilities with FSB, I attended the Labour Party conference. It was interesting to hear the Party set out ambitious plans for radical business rates reform in England, which align fairly well with FSB’s policy priorities. Of course, I also had my Northern Ireland hat with me, so it was a great opportunity to engage with the Shadow Secretary of State, Louise Haigh and the SDLP’s Claire Hanna, on issues closer to home.
The following week, it was the turn of the Conservatives to have their moment. FSB partnered in the Northern Ireland Reception, which was well attended with the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, Brexit Minister Lord Frost and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson all making an appearance. Amid rumours regarding the Government triggering Article 16, the Northern Ireland Protocol featured high on the agenda, with the Prime Minister talking about ‘fixing’ rather than ‘scrapping’ that particular part of the Withdrawal Agreement. With EU plans due for publication tomorrow, this week looks set to be another significant one in the Brexit process. Some have commented that it now feels like the ‘beginning of the end’ of this saga. With the political soap opera since the Brexit vote now lasting more than five years, many hope that we are at last entering the final chapter. We will study proposals which come forward from the UK and EU carefully to consider the implications for our members before making judgement on them.
As part of our continued cross-party conference engagement, FSB was also in attendance at the Ulster Unionist Party’s event at the weekend - the first to take place during Doug Beattie’s tenure as leader. It was interesting to hear the UUP set out its vision for Northern Ireland, with an ambition of becoming the largest party after the next Assembly election. As the months go on, we will increasingly see the parties focus on the election and their appeal to voters; and with more party conferences to attend in the coming weeks, I would imagine there will be plenty more speeches, standing ovations and ‘hear hears’ to come.