It’s time to let go of the chains and focus on the opportunities

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Paul Murnaghan, Chairman, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting the NI Chamber President’s Annual Banquet.

At the event, we were joined by business leaders, political representatives and, of course, the legendary guest speaker, Sir Mo Farah CBE.

As well as being a great opportunity to meet colleagues and partners face-to-face, it was also an important platform to describe very clearly, what the immediate

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and the long-term priorities are to achieve economic prosperity throughout Northern Ireland.

Serious challenges for some companies due to the NI protocol have been well documented from the start and, of course, issues remain. We are working in partnership with the NI Business Brexit Working Group to ensure these are highlighted to negotiators in the EU and UK.

Throughout the process we have been guided by our members, 70% of whom told us in a recent poll that they believe Northern Ireland’s unique status presents opportunities for the region. You only have to look at a few recent announcements to understand why.

Almac is creating 1,800 new jobs around the world, 1,000 of which will be based here. And AMP, one of the world’s largest packaging companies, is coming to Newtownabbey with an investment of £ 150million. These developments are proof of the unique opportunities of dual market access.

It is against this background of optimism and opportunity that we welcome the recent statement by Michael Gove indicating his “confidence” in the progress of the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations with the EU, without triggering the article 16.

Our economy has so many ingredients necessary for economic success. We have exceptional talent, creativity and innovation, and we are expanding into sectors with enormous growth potential. However, there is still a long way to go to ensure prosperity and realize our full potential as, unfortunately, Northern Ireland is well below its economic weight.

The region has remained static for too long, immobilized by the dead hand of political division, seeing eternal obstacles, not opportunities. Like I said last night, if this place was a business, we would more than likely be bankrupt.

We still see pockets of unacceptable deprivation, where, for too long, people have struggled to access work opportunities, upgrade their skills and access basic services that most of us take for granted. To truly capitalize on the opportunities, we need to reimagine Northern Ireland’s position in the world as a global center of creativity, innovation and prosperity, while fostering a diverse and inclusive society.

Everyone deserves a meaningful and rewarding job, and while the proportion of people with a job has grown steadily over the past six years, high levels of long-term economic inactivity persist. Rather than seeing this as a problem, I suggest that we re-imagine this as an opportunity.

Today, only 7% of our students benefit from integrated education. Independent education review is a real chance to ensure that every young person can benefit from a high quality education, and most importantly, with reconciliation at their heart.

We all recognize that poor health, both physical and mental, also has an impact on economic performance. It follows that we must treat health as a valuable national asset and redefine the challenge of health as a collective task of the whole government, and not just for the ministry of health. The recently announced multi-year budget could serve as a catalyst to tackle the root causes of poor physical and mental health, where the whole of government could deliver a return much richer than the sum of its parts.

Northern Ireland has enormous potential. Of course, old problems remain, but it is time for us to let go of the shackles of the past and move forward together. We need to see our businesses, political leaders and communities all focused on what unites us, in the best interests of Northern Ireland.


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