Key decisions possible, regardless of political uncertainty

08 November 2017 - by Gráinne Walsh

As Stormont continues to seek resolution, business must grapple with an uncertain landscape.

We are now in the 10th month without a Northern Ireland Assembly. Following two elections and seemingly endless talks we have no government, and against a backdrop of Brexit fast approaching, businesses in Northern Ireland may well be wondering how the political impasse will impact economic growth, and their own ability to operate.

In the run up to the 2016 Assembly election, organisations worked to ensure that they were ready to engage with the new crop of MLAs, ministers, advisers and Assembly committees. Time and resources were invested in understanding parties’ positions, assessing implications for strategic plans and investment budgets.

The 2016 results were quickly followed by the Programme for Government, developed with a new focus on outcomes, moving away from the traditional model of counting inputs and outputs to a shared approach to the delivery of public services and ‘turning the curve' on long-term social and economic challenges.

A new Industrial Strategy explored how Northern Ireland could become a globally competitive economy. Coupled with continued positive noises about corporation tax, activity seemed to be at least moving in the right direction.

Fast forward a year, and whether one is a leaver or remainer, a devolutionist or a direct-ruler, the only certainty for business is uncertainty. Whilst political parties are demonstrating personal commitments to working through and shaping a Brexit deal, the absence of an agreed position from the Executive, beyond the joint letter issued to the Prime Minister back in August 2016, means that this effort may not have the desired impact. Neither position here is fully articulated in already complex negotiations.

It would appear that this is not only frustrating our own engagement. The Scottish and Welsh governments are expressing concern that a joint ministerial council tasked with giving voice to the devolved jurisdictions has not met in over six months due to the absence of Northern Ireland Executive representation.

The politics of this aside, the EU Withdrawal Bill may present other challenges for business. The Bill, which aims to smooth the transition for departure from the EU, seeks to preserve UK frameworks and ensure strong collective negotiating positions across the regions.

However, this may see some powers once devolved to Northern Ireland being returned to Westminster. Furthermore, if the government is to use its fabled ‘Henry VIII’ powers, some of these issues may not even be debated on the floor of the House of Commons, never mind reaching the Assembly.

This could include farming, the environment and energy – issues where Northern Ireland arguably needs special consideration given its land border and close geographical, trading and social ties with the Republic.

The best solution to this is locally elected ministers making locally informed decisions, but in the absence of this, are direct rule counterparts warming up on the sidelines, preparing to provide stewardship to plug the gap to which we have grown accustomed? 

Whilst some might welcome this, based on the premise that something is better than nothing, the sort of governance provided by Whitehall might not actually deliver the vision and decisions that business and our public services need. Yes, they can make decisions, but will they? At the very least, it is unlikely that the government will want to be bold and ambitious in economic policy shaped by local knowledge and expertise.

While the DUP’s negotiation skills are laudable, their membership of Westminster committees important and their support for Theresa May critical, even they might not be able to hold back the tide of events in parliament. Will Mrs May have the political bandwidth to deploy in Northern Ireland?

In his decision to  grant planning permission to the Hightown energy-from-waste plant, the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Infrastructure cited the public interest as the determining factor in his decision. Are there more decisions that clearly follow the strategic direction of travel established by the Executive before its collapse?

As we await a budget from London, the issues and challenges facing business remain. We may look forward to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Dublin the weekend after next, followed by the DUP conference on the weekend of November 25. Will we see the respective party faithful being prepared for a Christmas deal? In the meantime decisions can and should be made.

An edited version of this article was published in yesterday's News Letter.