It’s time for Northern Ireland to grasp the opportunities Brexit brings

It’s time for Northern Ireland to grasp the opportunities Brexit brings

Following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the UK Government has undertaken a great deal of work to prepare for triggering Article 50 next week and the negotiations that will ensue. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the devolved administration in Belfast.

Before the vote last June, Northern Ireland civil servants had cobbled 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 our neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, than on the opportunities presented to Northern Ireland. Since then the Northern Ireland Executive appears to have done little of anything in preparation, other than a letter to the Prime Minister.

In a new report, An Agenda for Northern Ireland after Brexit, Northern Ireland business and the Global Britain think tank have collaborated to offer a policy framework so that work in earnest might at last begin. The time for idle chatter has passed – now we need to see real action and commitment at all levels of government in Northern Ireland.

With the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive, the fresh elections that followed, and the expected nominations for a new Executive during the week of Theresa May triggering of Article 50 – there is now an opportunity to put Brexit at the top of the agenda.

All the evidence thus far is that there will be no significant physical or tariff barriers to trade along the border – unless the European Union is hell bent on starting a trade war that will harm the Republic far more than it will harm the UK. 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. The point is that by regaining control of our laws, regulations and taxes, Brexit offers solutions to these problems, such as:

  • Committing to a restructured economy that favours a vibrant private sector rather than an unproductive public sector
  • Tackling issues of uncompetitiveness
  • Providing companies, particularly SMEs, with the support to grow profitably and to access new markets
  • Fostering a culture of enterprise and entrepreneurship
  • Reducing the business tax burden
  • Encouraging effective research and development
  • Improving efficiency in the agricultural sector
  • Developing a positive strategy for fisheries

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 can 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.

Alongside skills and education, tackling long-standing economic problems will mean encouraging local businesses to trade globally, focusing on SME exports and growing markets.

In the unlikely event of tariffs being introduced by the EU, the Executive should aim to support local businesses in displacing 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. Initiatives such as the recent placement of a new InvestNI Regional Manager in Doha, Qatar is a good example of Northern Ireland looking beyond Europe.

Likewise, many opportunities will be generated from Whitehall initiatives. The Executive needs to keep in close contract with the Department for International Trade as it negotiates new trade deals, and benefit from 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 can manage its agriculture to be more sustainable and efficient in the longer-term.

Similarly with our fishing industry, the Executive needs to know how it can be devolved and so focus on lifting the burden of regulation on Northern Irish fishermen.

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

The message of the report could not be clearer. A new Executive needs to get organised and get out there with the trade delegations and commercial offices targeting new global opportunities. Telling 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 the website.