Time to stop talking, start doing. Leaving the EU could be a good time to reshape the NI economy.

Jeff Peel has already made the case for welcoming the opportunities that Brexit offers Northern Ireland business. Elsewhere on Slugger, the implications of Brexit and decisions to be made by the Republic have been outlined.

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. Not so much our own devolved administration – and unlikely now to be a great deal of local input bar shouting and pouting, complaining and blaming.

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, with the decision made to Leave the EU, 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.

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 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 – time to for less talk and more action.

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.

There are of course 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.
  • Business tax burden.
  • Encouraging effective research and development.  
  • Improving efficiency in the agricultural sector.
  • Developing a positive strategy for fisheries.

Alongside these challenges are significant opportunities to start taking action in addressing those priorities. Brexit will bring about transformational change across the UK.  For Northern Ireland’s policy makers, it could 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-focussing on maintaining the flow of migrant labour.  It could create opportunities to reach people who have become economically inactive, alongside a strategy addressing other factors like dependency and a culture of joblessness.  Any initiative of this type would be most effective if public agencies work closely with partners from the industries most closely affected.

Alongside skills and education, the added opportunities for the Executive to make progress tackling long-standing economic problems will mean encouraging private sector development and targeted support to local business 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 to the South East of England; principal priority is making Northern Ireland work and grow.

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. Initiatives such as the recent placement of a new InvestNI Regional Manager in Doha, Qatar, signal awareness of the need to expand dedicated export efforts.

Many opportunities will be generated from Whitehall initiatives. The Executive needs to be alert to emerging markets, keeping in close contract with the Department for International Trade as it negotiates new trade deals, and prepare to signpost effectively 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 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 generate more tax revenues.

The message of this report could not be clearer. Government needs to 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.

David Hoey is a local businessman. The report “An Agenda for Northern Ireland after Brexit” is available on the Global Britain website.

  • Ciarán Doherty

    Sounds like May is trying to reel back expectations, but at this point the cat is probably out the bag.. In fact it was out the bag even prior to the vote, hence the result.

    Ultimately there is no conceivable possibility that the 27 don’t seek to make an example of Britain and have real and visible deterioration in the British economy as a result of leaving, it would be political suicide for them not to.

    It would even be political suicide for Britain to be able to weather a brief storm, it has to be significant and enduring.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The shouting is over? Mick do you need to see an Otolaryngologist because I think you might be deaf.

    I see no way “Shouty Shouty” politics will abate in the slightest over the next two years to two centuries over this.

  • Tom Smith

    When Irish Eyes Are Smirking (in anticipation) about the EU ‘punishing’ the UK they forget that not all Europe regards the UK with such a Britphobic gaze.

    It is in the EU’s interest to ensure a positive as possible outcome of negotiations for both parties. Remember also that the EU has to temper its position to one that accords with an approach acceptable to all remaining member nations.

    Whilst trade is of course very important other geopolitical issues are also in the mix, not least security cooperation. Given the state of the world does anyone actually believe that Europe wants to p@ss off the UK (a major security partner) simply to ‘teach it a lesson’ for leaving the EU?

    Also at this point in time, with elections in both Germany and France in the offing, the EU negotiating position may not be clear until at least the autumn. Should Marine Le Pen perform strongly in France we may see a very different EU in the near future.

    Perhaps the EU will itself be keen to send out a signal about its own need to restructure during the Brexit talks? At the least it’s going to be ‘interesting times’.

  • Karl

    Im looking for a deep and special relationship with the woman down the road. Unfortunately, I’ve spent the last 40 years complaining and moaning when I have to pay for anything. She didnt want the divorce but she’s damn sure she doesnt have to be nice to me anymore.

  • Gavin Crowley

    I think you’ve misread the situation. Irish eyes are looking on with sympathy. France and Germany are looking with colder eyes. The further south and east you travel, the less strongly people care about the UK.

  • Karl

    The UK isnt the security partner it once was.

    Nuclear weapons only usable with Americas permission
    150 MBTs
    120 Front line fighter aircraft
    < 20 combat vessels
    No significant maritime patrol capability (P8s)
    No strategic airlift capability
    10,000 max number of troops capable of sustained overseas deployment
    Army, navy, airforce numbers in decline
    No decision made on trident or submarine replacement
    No enough aircraft for carriers

    UK military has tried to maintain all capabilities across all services instead of specialising and has failed at pretty much everything

  • ulidian

    And most of the EU’s member states offer virtually nothing militarily. I’d say it’s long since time the UK focused on the defence of its own borders.

  • Karl

    Yep. Thats the problem large portions of the world have with them alright.

  • Jimmyz

    “Nuclear weapons only usable with Americas permission”


  • Karl

    The US supply the missiles and have the self destruct codes. You call that what you like.

  • Paul Hagan

    But there are no current threats to the UK’s borders, instead the UK’s security threats are mostly better-focused elsewhere and better tackled in unison.

  • Jimmyz

    self destruct codes lol ???

    Source ?

  • 1729torus
  • Concubhar O Liathain

    What we should do immediately is move Northern Ireland from its current location to, say, Australia and if we don’t get a good trade deal there, we should try India. That’s basically what we should do fulfil the notions of the Brexiteers who want to establish Empire 2.0 (because Empire 1.0 was such a huge hit with the colonised) that Britain can become great again by detaching itself from its largest market. And NI can also become great because despite all indications to the contrary, we are part of a ‘great union of nations’ which is unstoppable if we set our mind to something. So let’s move NI…..

  • Fear Éireannach

  • George

    All these are good suggestions but the question is why should Northern Ireland be any more successful in achieving any of these aims outside of the EU than it was within it.

    Looking at agriculture, I see more problems than opportunities. 55% of exports (as in goods exported outside of the UK) go to the Republic of Ireland. The movement of goods is going to become more difficult than it is today (how much more we don’t yet know) so this will affect NI’s largest external market. Putting aside tariffs, if NI doesn’t keep up its adherence to EU regulations then who knows if they will even be allowed export goods south?

    The idea that the internal UK market will take up the slack is doubtful if you consider that the UK has made clear it wants to open up new markets with large world economies such as, for example, Brazil. There is no doubt that any free trade agreement will involve relaxing of tariffs on what the Brazilians want to sell to the UK, of which beef is a major one. If anything I see UK agriculture coming under more pressure rather than finding new opportunities.

    Throw in the removal of direct payments from the EU, which will affect cattle and sheep farmers and cereal growers most, and we have a crisis in NI agriculture, not an opportunity. So far, the UK has been resolutely silent on whether it will maintain payments beyond 2020 and these payments could stop even sooner if the UK divorces quicker due to a collapse of talks over the row over the “divorce” bill.

    I would like to hear why these opportunities can be grasped now when they haven’t in the past 20 years when NI had open and unfettered access to the world’s largest trading bloc.

  • Neville Bagnall

    Undoubtedly the UK can succeed outside of the EU, just as Canada succeeds while having an independent trade policy from its large neighbour. In fact the USA/Canada & EU/UK trade situations seem to be remarkably similar and may develop in similar ways. I’m surprised more wasn’t made of the similarities during the Referendum. Anyway, there is no reason to think the North will not share in the results of Brexit.

    But, just a quick couple of points.

    “Now is also the time to lobby the UK Government to agree a framework strategy addressing how Northern Ireland agriculture can be more sustainable and efficient in the longer-term. ”

    About the only thing that seems a surety in regard to future UK trade policy is that they will pursue a cheap food policy with more agricultural imports from world markets. Also probable is reduced subsidies – the UK Government has never been fond of CAP subsidy levels. So yes, I expect NI agriculture will become more efficient. Like New Zealand’s did. I think they call it creative destruction.

    “There is no evidence that there will be significant physical or tariff barriers to trade along the border”

    Whatever about tariff barriers between the EU and the UK, there remains the fact that the UK will be outside the Customs Union. There will likely be products in the NI market that arrived there at a low or zero tariff that have a high EU tariff, possibly even vice-versa. Say NZ milk products or Brazilian beef to stick with the agricultural theme. Quite apart from the issue of smuggling, there are a whole host of issues around Custom Controls in that situation. And I doubt if either administration wants the sort of significant increases in cross-border shopping that might result from tariff misalignment. I don’t think there will be custom barriers on the border. But there might be at the ports. Or related, the North might find itself de-facto inside the Customs Union with some form of VAT-return like mechanism for recouping tariffs. The burden on businesses and/or consumers won’t be huge, but it won’t be zero, and I suspect the biggest burden will fall on the smallest economy – the North’s.

  • ted hagan

    ‘There is no evidence that there will be significant physical or tariff barriers to trade along the border’

    So where is the evidence there won’t be?

    Yet more Brexit hogwash.

  • As in the paper, the point is that many of the issues are not specific to #Brexit. As in the title, if this doesn’t shake up our politicians to make some fundamental shifts in focus and long overdue shifts in strategy and implementation in this context then when. There is a world of opportunity out there, that needs to be grasped.

  • eamoncorbett

    David Hoey, you might wish to enlighten those sceptics among us just how you will convince Sinn Fein of the merits of your ideas when their agenda is an all island economy , you have fundamentally underestimated the true directions which NI is headed , note that I said directions because there is zero agreement on the actual end result which the 2 parties are aiming for .
    How on earth could Brexit be good for NI when the politicians in charge don’t even want to know each other , for Gods sake get a grip.

  • Sinn Fein’s agenda is that Northern Ireland does not exist at all. It is unlikely to be persuaded otherwise. The case here is for what needs to be undertaken by Government of a regional economy within the UK, which we are. That is fact, not aspiration.

  • eamoncorbett

    What is fact is that SF is part of that government and have a hugely different agenda , FACT.

  • SouthernMan

    David, your “report” sounds more like a wish list written by a bunch of 25 year old MBA students. The fact that the two most discussed sectors of the NI economy in your report are Agriculture and Fishing just shows how stuck in the 1950’s the six counties really are. I’m surprised you didn’t mention ship building and DeLoreans!

    But if you guys need any help winning FDI or growing a successful, modern economy, please feel free to give us down South a call! We have some expertise.

  • Not part of any Government at the moment other than a few local council that are run mostly by CEOs.

  • William Kinmont

    Agri food is by far our biggest employer in the North food processing trumps all other manufacturing. The farming base for this is very dependant on EU subsidies and import protections. Managing this transition therefore should be a priority. Continued subsidisation of inefficient protected production is artificial and never sustainable , it could be argued that proper management will give this sector a head start over the rest of the Eu when the subs do fall off.
    Like the South we have few other resources beyond the land and our people. Unlike the South we have been unable to manipulate taxation and exploit EU investment to developer our Economy . This is no longer going to be an option for the South either as they become a net Eu contributer and the EU cracks down on the tax issue.

  • SouthernMan

    Sorry to hear that begrudgery is alive and well in some parts of Ireland! You appear to hope that we will fall off our prosperous perch and will soon be a basket case economy like the 6 counties. Sorry to disappoint! We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.

  • William Kinmont

    absolutely not I believe that sooner or later we will be one country I even think this could be a good thing potentially. i am less sure that the Eu as it is now will be as good a place for Ireland United or otherwise than it has been . i dont begrudge Irelands success i congratulate it but am not sure that the EU unless it changes will have the same opertunities.

  • SouthernMan

    I understand your unease with the EU. I also appreciate your kind comments so please allow me to withdraw my ‘begrudgery’ remark!

  • William Kinmont

    thank you

  • Brendan Heading

    Without intending to be disrespectful to David, this article contributes nothing new to the discussion.

    70% of the article deals with the issue of economic reform in Northern Ireland and is nothing to do with brexit. It’s all good stuff – but it’s also very familiar, the standard economic reform ideas that date back at least 20 years. Anyone can go around saying stuff like “we need to move from the public to the private sector” or “we need to strengthen SMEs” or “we need to reduce the business tax burden”. These are, at this point, clichés to be found in almost any article written about the Northern Ireland economy. It’s not at all clear to me what the point is in repeating them over and over again.

    The other 30% of the article is to do with brexit, and follows the usual brexiter formula of guessing, speculation and misinformation dressed up as informed comment. For example :

    “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”

    The British government has undertaken almost no work at all to prepare the UK for leaving the European Union. Most of its effort has been directed towards avoiding Parliamentary accountability over the negotiating process. When Hilary Benn questioned David Davis in committee last week it became apparent that there are a number of fundamental questions the British government haven’t even started work on, something which is unforgiveable given that they’ve had 8 months to look at it.

    The UK government still does not know what its future relationship with Europe will be. It has made no firm commitments about its negotiating position. It has flipped-flopped over the issues of single market access.

    There is no evidence that there will be significant physical or tariff barriers to trade along the border

    Again – this is wishful thinking pretending to be an informed opinion. Nobody knows whether or not there will be tariff barriers. The British government has failed to comprehensively rule out the possibility of barriers as part of its negotiating position. Everything is on the table.

    Alongside skills and education, the added opportunities for the Executive

    It is unclear to me exactly how brexit will create opportunities for Northern Ireland which did not previously exist. It is a shame that David felt unable to outline any of them in his article.

    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

    When I read comments like this I wonder if David actually followed the brexit side of the debate at all. A major plank of the brexit case is that the UK will be free to pursue its own trade deals. There is no reason why this will not include food-related trade deals with second and third world countries, which are currently blocked by the subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy.

    If the UK moves to significantly reduce or eliminate agricultural subsidy it will wipe out almost the entire sector in the UK.

  • Brendan Heading

    Shock therapy for the farmers ? That’ll work, for sure.

  • William Kinmont

    i am one and largely welcome a shake up to this part of the industry, subsidies have perpetuated inefficiency. The land will still be there so some form of activity will happen. its the processing and transport that supports all the jobs these parts are largely foreign owned and might easily move if supply chains wobble for any length of time. All those lorrys leaving each day from Moy Park etc do not return empty but bring back goods for our shops or supplies for industry that otherwise might not be economic to transport.
    There are a number of firms in NI which started out producing packaging for the food exports and on the back of this have been able to diversify into many other areas. one local to me now exports specialist software to packaging companies worldwide, but it was agri food that set the company on its feet. You may not like farmers perpetually moaning and having undue influence with politions but it is the scale of agrifood relative to our economy that means it deserves priority.

  • Brendan Heading

    The industry is almost certainly inefficient.

    However, by throwing it open to the free market, you will wipe out all local agriculture and replace it with cheap imports from other countries where costs are far lower. Once you do that, you’re at the mercy of foreign countries using your food supply against you as leverage. This is why the CAP exists.

  • William Kinmont

    We in NI are large net exporter meat dairy and veg. Only use 3-5 percent of our dairy production so can afford large stop in production without risking security of supply . Dairy here should be competitive with rest of world in even terms . Suckler beef would take major hit without subsidy but why are we subsidising other countries beef supply. Poultry and pig are dependant on imported feed and exported sales only reason to keep here is the capital invested on farms and processing capacity. Same rules apply in south and Scotland . ENGLAND however may imported and population would be at mercy of other markets. High population density even means that supply logistics are precarious in England yet they are the least supportive of subsidies .

  • SouthernMan

    Very good points. The Global Britain report report is a bunch of ‘hooey’.