Our firms have shown nerve and resilience to grow despite the lack of Executive and Brexit uncertainty
That Northern Ireland’s most successful firms continue to prosper against an uncertain backdrop is testament to their forbearance and innovation. Broadly speaking, the challenges they face are the same as last year. Resolving Brexit and restoring the Northern Ireland Executive remain urgent. Making progress in these areas will allow firms to get on with creating a more prosperous society for everyone. But we must also make room to tackle other issues, from designing a future immigration system that works for business to climate change.
Before taking a closer look at the to-do list, it’s worth understanding the economic backdrop. Growth is slowing across the UK. And investment is suffering due to the prolonged uncertainty, which is saddling businesses with extra costs and compliance as Brexit no-deal planning continues.
The CBI and other expert voices have put forward clear evidence about the harm a hard border would bring. Business has played a huge part in contributing to peace and prosperity across the island of Ireland these past 20 years. For that to continue, the conditions for companies must improve, not worsen. So politicians on all sides must compromise to find a deal that commands a majority in the House of Commons, can be negotiated with the EU and protects the UK and Ireland’s all-island economy.
Turning to the UK and Northern Ireland’s future immigration system, the lack of access to skills remains acute, with a majority of CBI NI members highlighting concerns over future labour supply. Our agri-industry, hospitals, housebuilders and retailers are examples of major employers already struggling to find the people they need at salaries well below £30,000.
Indeed, our own analysis shows that an ageing population, combined with subdued levels of net migration, will leave the local economy highly exposed to any restrictions on migrant workers. Specifically, CBI estimates show that a 50% reduction in EU migration into the region over the next 20 years would decrease real GDP by 5.3%. This underlines why it is so important to create a post-brexit immigration system
that works for all UK regions and nations, including Northern Ireland.
Moving on, it’s pleasing to see companies listed in this year’s Belfast Telegraph Top 100 coming from a wide range of sectors — from energy production and construction to IT to financial services. Yet they all have a similar outlook on several key micro and macro issues.
On the micro side, each of these firms know maintaining a relentless focus on competitiveness and productivity performance is key for success.
Whether participating in the robotics revolution, digital connectivity, or driving up innovation, successful firms are continually exploring ways to drive output growth. We all know investment in technology is just one way to improve performance.
Indeed, adopting successful new technologies already available in the market can foster large productivity increases. Beyond technology, how firms lead, develop and engage their people directly impacts business performance.
Fresh CBI research suggests businesses have the potential to add more than £110bn to the UK economy by improving their people management practices.
At a macro level, there are also common challenges that have rapidly moved up the agenda for the CEOS managing companies in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the greatest challenge of our age is climate change. From school strikes to the Extinction Rebellion campaign, global protests have raised the right questions and shown that a lack of action will be catastrophic.
Sometimes, business is perceived as the obstacle to dealing with climate change. But many companies are leading the charge from the front. From colossal offshore wind turbines to electric vehicle batteries, they are the ones innovating the world away from environmental risks by delivering the technology needed to cut carbon emissions.
Without business innovating to create the solutions to the challenges of our generation, there is no way we can stop global warming.
Ultimately, progress on climate change requires real solutions and action from business, governments and of course the public too – we all need to make changes to the way each of us lives our lives.
Just as we know more than ever about the negative effects of climate change, thankfully, we also know more about the solutions – and the wealth of opportunities they offer. Onshore wind is among the cheapest of all energy sources and solar power continues to fall in price, while rapid advancements in battery technology means electric vehicles are surging in popularity.
The scale of the challenge is significant. While shifting towards a zero-carbon future will not be cheap, it is the best value investment that we can make in the long run.
However, the costs of any transition cannot be borne by those least able to deal with them. Investing in new technologies must be shared fairly, between consumers, businesses and the Government.
The world has reached a large and unavoidable crossroads on climate change. Tough decisions and leadership, from cabinet tables to boardrooms are needed.
This is the “space race” of our time, the green race to a better future. The onus is now on politicians and business to work together to create meaningful action on this issue.
So, with that in mind, I look forward to seeing more climate change innovators in next year’s list. Meanwhile, I and my colleagues throughout the CBI will be doing all we can to keep on creating the right conditions for businesses of all sizes and sectors to prosper.
NI BUSINESS LEADERS IN THE TOP 100 REMAIN FOCUSED ON THE BOTTOM LINE OF COMPETITIVENESS BUT THEY ALSO FACE THE SAME PROBLEMS AS CEOS AROUND THE GLOBE, LIKE CLIMATE CHANGE, THE SPACE RACE OF OUR TIME