Assessing the triple threat – NI Chamber chair Nick Coburn

Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce president and CEO of Ulster Carpets, Nick Coburn, speaks to Neighbourhood Retailer about the tryptic of travails that have hit the local business community

First there was Brexit. Then Northern Ireland’s political wheels ground to a rusted halt.

But just as the local business community muttered to itself, “at least it can’t get any wor…,” a shock and potentially destabilising General Election was announced to take place on 8 June.

The lack of government in Northern Ireland is one of the big disappointments

The UK’s exit from the European Union is widely regarded as the biggest political shake-up since the Second World War. But Northern Ireland is without a government and, with that, the ability to deflect whatever difficulties this epoch-making separation may bring.

The snap General Election, meanwhile, caught the nation completely off-guard, with Prime Minister Theresa May taking a surprise gamble with the Tory Government’s future.

So far the polls are on her side, but given the pattern of electoral upsets in recent months, the late Lemmy of Motörhead’s warning that “Gamblin’s for fools” seems that much more prescient.

Should those punk-rock warnings prove true, a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government is sure to dissolve what certainty remains about the current direction of the UK’s political future.

With Northern Ireland at the nexus of the UK and Europe’s future political relationship – as the only land border between both states – local business is understandably concerned about the triple-threat to local, national, and supranational stability.

As chairman of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, few are better placed to take the pulse of local industry and commerce than Nick Coburn.

Speaking to Neighbourhood Retailer, the CEO of Ulster Carpets described the PM’s election grenade as a “curve ball” that vulnerable local business is unable to bat away.

“The lack of government in Northern Ireland is one of the big disappointments, because for the past few years the Northern Ireland economy was starting to move forward,” he said.

“Now we’re in a situation where we could lose both the devolved institutions and the Programme for Government. Those things are vital – no one else is going to look after Northern Ireland.”

Mr Coburn explained that with Brexit on the way – discounting another polling perturbation – it was a bad time for the devolved government to slip from Northern Ireland’s grip.

However, Nick believes this could shift responsibility onto the shoulders of the private sector.

“Yes, it creates uncertainty, but business will have to adapt and this is a case where, when politicians take themselves out of the equation, it leaves a vacuum in which business will need to do things for itself.”

But it’s not as if, locally, business was coasting a wave of idealism up to now. The Northern Irish business environment is beset by difficulties. Business rates, infrastructure, training, transport, and tax are just a snapshot of the challenges facing our post-conflict economy.

But with the leading parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, blaming each other for failing to resolve the talk impasse, the likelihood of locally accountable politicians solving these issues is increasingly remote.

We will see a return to Direct Rule as a big setback

Nick said: “We will see a return to Direct Rule as a big setback. Northern Ireland is best served by its own government. When you lose that, you give power back to Westminster which has a different set of priorities to Northern Ireland. That will be particularly apparent during the Brexit negotiations, which are going to get very tough.

“Without a strong voice at the table, Northern Ireland will not get the maximum it could have achieved.

While Mr Coburn said Direct Rule would not be ‘Doomsday’, he believed the failure to implement the Assembly’s Programme for Government was particularly lamentable.

“The development of the most recent Programme for Government took a considerable amount of time and effort from all those who contributed to it, including the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce,” he said.

“A lot of organisations had got behind it and in November and December of last year things were looking good. But now, obviously, things have gone off the rails badly and the Programme for Government has more-or-less been shelved. That’s a huge disappointment.”

Direct Rule is also one part of a double whammy to the fortunes of local efforts to slash corporation tax to a level that can compete with the Republic of Ireland’s ultra-low rate.

In July last year, the then UK Chancellor outlined plans to cut its corporation tax rate to below 15%, undermining any competitive advantage for Northern Ireland.

Mr Coburn admitted the idea was “on the backburner”, but maintained it was “not dead”.

“With this sudden election, we don’t know where it’s going to go,” he said. “It had a significant potential to attract major Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and there were a lot of people ready to invest. But investors need to see stable governments, good planning, and good infrastructure.

“This is where the political instability is not helping.”

The issue also prompted Nick to level his strongest criticism at NI’s elected representatives: “The negative impact on local investment is where we have to lay the blame at the door of local politicians who are failing to lead this country.”

The effect on investment is highlighted in NI Chamber’s quarterly survey, which is just about to be published.

It contains examples of companies putting plans on hold because of the current climate.

“There isn’t complete stagnation,” Nick added. “But uncertainty is there, and it’s having an effect.” And with necessity giving birth to invention, Nick has found a lot of companies are stretching out to markets outside the UK and even the EU for the first time.

“We are seeing a lot of business seeking opportunities outside their comfort zones and beyond the usual borders. In the long term, that’s positive for the local economy.

“There are big markets in Asia, America, and the Middle East, and we, along with other local business organisations, are keen to help local firms bridge those gaps.”

NI businesses has little option but to stay as positive as possible. But with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicting the UK economy to grow behind the rest of the world over the next few years, is it time to admit Brexit has seen voters shoot themselves in the foot?

“Brexit was the outcome of a democratic process,” Nick said. “It does, however, bring a lot of disadvantages. Global growth is predicted to be 3.6%, while the UK economy is to stay within 2%, according to the IMF.

“That doesn’t sound like much, but it represents trillions of dollars. The UK is seeing a slowdown but businesses need to go out and take a big leap of faith. Around 60% of Ulster Carpets’ exports are to countries outside the EU.

“Yes, Brexit was a curve ball, but it’s all about adaptability and finding the best way of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.”

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