Stop talking, start doing.

Leaving the EU is a good time to reshape the Northern Ireland economy

Following the decision of the UK electorate on 23 June 2016 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.

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 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, 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.

It is time to stop talking about ‘re-balancing’ the Northern Ireland economy. The UK decision to leave the EU means there is no better time than the present to take action to gain best advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead; time to tip the scales in favour of private sector enterprise and exports. As a UK regional economy Northern Ireland faces issues around productivity, economic inactivity within its workforce, and an overbearing public sector.

In a new report, An Agenda for Northern Ireland after Brexit, local Northern Ireland business and the Global Britain think-tank 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.

There is 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. Talk about threats to the peace process is both irresponsible and wrong. That is not there are not challenges ahead for the Northern Ireland economy, but many existed with or without Brexit. Priorities going forward need to focus on:

  • 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.
  • Offering low business taxes.
  • Encouraging effective research and development.
  • Improving efficiency in the agricultural sector.
  • Developing a positive strategy for fisheries.

But alongside these challenges are significant opportunities to start taking action in addressing those priorities.

Leaving the EU will bring added opportunities for the Executive to make progress tackling long-standing economic problems by taking advantage of new free trade agreements. This will mean encouraging private sector development and the local economy’s potential to trade globally, focusing on SME exports and growth.

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 in the South East of England.

With new UK trade relationships outside the EU, Northern Ireland’s “international outreach” operations need to reflect new where the economic demand is, and redouble its efforts with new trade offices in targeted markets. The Executive needs to be alert to emerging markets and prepare to signpost effectively any “trade push” by the UK Government, after Brexit takes place.

There may be some restrictions on migrant labour in the future, so this would be a good time to address issues with the competitiveness and productivity of the Northern Ireland labour supply. The Executive will need to place greater attention on improving skills and education for Northern Ireland’s workforce, as part of a wider strategy to target economic inactivity.

Now is also the time to lobby the UK Government to agree a 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 generating more tax revenues.

Northern Ireland’s biggest customer, the home market in the UK, has a growing economy. Foreign Direct Investment is not slowing, and investment is undiminished.

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 the Global Britain website.

 

 

Make your mind up time

It is make your mind up time for the Irish Republic.

Nothing new, but there has been hugely irresponsible and faintly histrionic noises coming out of Dublin, and Irish republican/nationalism generally, along with other voices (usual suspects), to the effect that Brexit means a return to violence in Northern Ireland. The only obvious return to the past is the use by the Republic’s politicians of events related to Northern Ireland as a distraction away from issues for which they are responsible, a deflection from the economic and political realities on its own doorstep.

Read more… »

unintended consequences?

The Renewable Heat Association (RHANI) sought a legal injunction to stop the Department for the Economy publishing the names its members, about 500 in total.

Yesterday an interim injunction was overturned in respect of those companies who successfully applied to the RHI scheme. Individuals who applied would seem to be except from their names being published, for now.

There has been lots of comment on the judgement which has mostly focused on the publication of ‘names’, and how quickly those names might be published. However, in the BBC report of the judgement it was a small comment that caught eye of @thedissenter which seemed more important to the scheme of things.

The report on the case states:

The judge ruled that the application for RHI subsidy did not amount to a legally binding contract.

and;

He said the department had the right to vary the terms.

Why is that interesting? The argument that the RHI will cost £XXX million over 20 years rested on the premise that approval of the applications meant the creation of a legally binding, invariable contract. This judge would seem to disagree.

It might expected that legal actions on RHI are far from over. However, if the point the judge in this case goes unchallenged (improbable, but not to say he will be over-ruled on this point later) that moving forward:

  • the current 12 month fix by the Minister, Simon Hamilton, will hold, and that;
  • going forward the scheme can be altered to a controlled scheme within what funding is available from Westminster.

While seeking to protect the anonymity of its members the RHANI may well have sped up the process of revision to the grant payments of those who had RHI scheme approvals pre-2016, at considerable relief to the Northern Ireland budget.

Seems RHANI members may soon be facing the Law of Unintended Consequences.

And why are we having an election?

 

 

The Blame Game

First: Cover Your Ass.

First: Cover Your Ass.

Having been focused on travelling and/or working in the later half of 2016 the RHI story was in the background, though hard to miss the heat and noise around the issue.

At the start of 2017 it seemed that despite the heat and noise, there wasn’t much light on the subject. Nolan was on repeat. While plenty of titbits were being bandied about as if Moses had just revealed them himself, nothing seemed to be moving the story forward. The story of RHI had become left behind by the political story unraveling before us.

Worthwhile at this point to rewind. Helpfully, early last July the Northern Ireland Audit Office produced a report on the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme. You can read the report here along with the summary contained in the accompanying press release.

If you want to know about the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme then you really should read the NIAO report. It provides a timeline of events, the likely immediate impact on budget finances and a series of actions that had been agreed within the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment in particular.

And it is worth listening to the short two minute item here from UTV(ITV) on the scheme, closing with the Minister, Simon Hamilton, confirming a pathway forward in respect of addressing the failures of the scheme. The NIAO summary of what was launched into the public arena back in July 2016, is easy to recognise:

The RHI scheme encouraged the installation of costly eco-friendly heating systems by paying a tariff per kilowatt of heat burned over a 20-year period. It was administered on behalf of Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM). Read more… »

The big, beautiful, election

IMG_3392

From the UK it might have been expected that on landing at Dulles just a few days before election day there would have been a palpable air of outright ferocity, divisiveness and hostilities arising from the mutually corrosive election campaigns of Clinton and Trump.

In the event, all was calm. As were the mostly Republican friends encountered over the next few days. There was no great enthusiasm for Trump as President, but generally agreement that it should be ‘anyone but Hillary’.

Read more… »

Trumped

Trump / Clinton

This blog piece has been a little while in the making. Earlier, in March, the effort to try to better understand what was going on in the American Presidential Primaries prompted a trip to Washington DC. Probably overdue and making good, finally, on often made promises to visit, this was a chance to meet old friends and gain a first hand sense of what was going on.

Here was an opportunity to hear the views of people involved in education, lobbying, journalism, policy and politics. With the exception of the ex-pat journalist, of whom I would not presume to ask political affiliation, everyone else was a Republican. Anyway, morning TV included CNN, MSNBC, CBS, etc, as well as FOX. Balance restored.

At the time of the visit Trump was still in the end stage battle with Rubio and Cruz, and Clinton still had some months to go of a slugging match with Sanders before getting over the line with the delegate vote required.

So in a few short days, what sense could be made of American politics generally, Presidential primaries in particular?

Read more… »

Where to start?

Unknown

Political life can be very dull and quite predictable. For a time commentary seemed all too often no more than a variation on a theme. Then, all at once….  These past few weeks in the UK have been anything but dull, or predictable.

Except it is usually that big event merely captures what has been happening in the background, perhaps unseen, or commented upon only in the margins.

Since the Tea Party became a much talked about though little understood political movement in the USA, politics has been changing – it may have been changing before, but that was an early manifestation of a wide-spectrum revolt against mainstream politic/ians. Yes that does ignore nationalist movements in Europe, because nationalism (or race) is so often the only thing that defines those movements. The Front National is a French “Nationalist Party”, but that simple descriptor ‘nationalist’ cannot be attached to the Tea Party.

For some time, no doubt,a voice has been making efforts to be heard. Echoes of that voice were occasionally noted, in passing, in the mainstream media. Without an event it was hard to pin down, and easy for mainstream politicians to ignore.

Some such as leftie journo Paul Mason did try to pin down the change to come. He was very excited by the prospect of revolution in Arab Spring and extrapolated this to “Twenty reason why it is kicking off everywhere” back in 2011. Yet more recently he seems to have been horrified that most of his reasoning is embedded in the campaigning that ultimately delivered Brexit – the shock perhaps that the revolution has not being secured by the young, engaged and educated, but by the poor, disengaged and abandoned ‘worker’ that today’s left appreciates only for the rhetorical value they lend to the ’cause’.

Making some sense of the shifting political sands over this past year has been a challenge. Hence, the absence of posting. Instead, a trip to the Washington DC in March 2016, and in early May a meeting with friends from across Europe (politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, bankers, business people; many no longer politically active, some who now live in North America). Most recently a trip to France, for the Thiepval Commemorative Service and the opportunity to speak casually with many who attended that event from across the UK, from all walks of life. And reading widely.

So in a series of posts, time to look at the USA, Europe and politics closer to home and some observations on some common threads. That will be the summer’s challenge. Making sense of it all.

Not telling.

shush

With the new larger Local Councils up and running there have been a number of stories in the local news about the cost of rebranding – new logos or, in this recent case, a new coat of arms.

There are many arguments for spending on rebranding to create an identity for a new body where it is about bringing a community together, good and bad. Very often this revolves around the final visual identity, the logo, and whether it is considered good or bad design.

Whatever the cost of the process this is voted on by Councillors and agreed by Councillors. So to not be prepared to reveal the cost where the spending was unanimously supported by all parties at Monday night’s Council meeting” seems a little odd and overly-secretive.

If Councillors they are prepared to defend the project on which the money was spent, Councillors should be equally prepared to reveal how much is cost. After all it is the local rate-payer, the taxpayer, who is funding the ceremonial trappings of Council. It is the taxpayer to whom the Councillors are accountable.

The Government is currently looking at Freedom of Information requests, and their cost. Here is a very small example where a Council is not being open, not being accountable. In the total budget it may not be a big item, but it tends to a reluctance of elected representatives to be very forthcoming about how much of our money they are spending and allowing the taxpayer, and voter, to make up their own mind on what is value for money and what is not.

The Government should not be looking at the cost of Freedom of Information requests, instead it should be working harder on more open and accountable government at all levels that reduce the need for FOI requests in the first instance.