In a keynote address at the CBI Northern Ireland Annual Dinner on Thursday, CBI Director-General, Carolyn Fairbairn, will reflect the deep concern about political uncertainty and Brexit shared by businesses and communities across Northern Ireland. 20 years on from the Good Friday agreement, politicians from Northern Ireland, Britain and the EU must make sure they do not turn the clock back on peace and prosperity.
The CBI urges all sides to consider what’s at stake. In the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement and the border barriers were taken down, Northern Irish businesses have helped create over 160,000 extra jobs, unemployment is close to its lowest ever, Irish product exports have risen at an average of 6% a year, year on year, for 20 years. And companies in Northern Ireland generate £70bn a year in sales.
Debate is not enough. Solutions must be delivered in three key areas. A hard border must be avoided – if there are alternatives to a customs union that deliver this, they must be explained in detail, now. A functioning Executive is urgently needed – to drive the development of a new economic plan and give Northern Ireland back its powerful voice on the international stage. And an immigration system must be laid out that enables businesses to attract the people that will power long-term prosperity.
The spirit of compromise and cooperation that drove the Good Friday Agreement must be applied today to tackle the stalemate at Stormont and ensure the Brexit deal does not block opportunities for generations to come.
On Brexit and the Irish Border, CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn will say: “With less than a year to go until the UK leaves the EU, the Government must not just declare that a hard border will not return, but explain precisely how this will be achieved after Brexit.
“Now is the time to replace warm words with wise decisions.
“20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we face a choice. To reaffirm the principle of consent that underpins that Agreement and its legacy of civil rights, prosperity and peace or to see a new division across the island of Ireland, with all that that entails for people’s jobs, rights and livelihoods.
“Don’t throw away a generation of progress in Northern Ireland on the back of Brexit.
On the issue of a Customs Union: “This is the moment to put politics and ideology aside, and end the prevarication.
“We at the CBI have said that a new customs union with the EU will help keep the border open and allow Northern Ireland to continue to prosper.
“Based on current evidence it is the only way to keep the border fully open.
“This is not a dogmatic view but a pragmatic one. Technology solutions may be ready one day but they are not yet.
“And trade deals around the world may one day compensate for lost EU trade. But that day is not yet here.
“So both sides should explore new customs union options, alongside ways to keep goods regulation closely aligned – the other essential ingredient of a wholly frictionless border.
“And while we are making this argument in Westminster we are also making it in the EU27. Because they too have much to lose from a hard border in Ireland. And much to gain if we get it right.
On the absence of a functioning Executive
“Right now, in Westminster, Dublin, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, politicians are running the most important negotiations affecting Northern Ireland for a generation.
“Yet Northern Ireland has no voice of its own in these negotiations.
“20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has now been without an executive for 16 months.
“There’s no Programme for Government, no industrial or economic strategy and no corporation tax cut that would have brought NI in line with the Republic of Ireland.
“Crucially, there is no directly elected voice of devolved government in the Brexit negotiations. This is not how it should be.”
“What is so remarkable is that Northern Irish business has not thrown its hands up in despair.
“Where leadership is lacking, business has taken the lead. Northern Irish business has become the voice of the economy, speaking up for jobs, prosperity and living standards.
On a post-Brexit immigration system
“In the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has gone from being a place where more people leave than arrive to the opposite – a place where people want to come and stay.
“The success of the Northern Irish economy means it has outpaced the population available to do the work – it is this pressure that accounts for record employment figures.
“It is of course a nice problem to have – a fantastic turning point. It’s a challenge with two solutions. First, those of us in business need to act and should look to those who today are not engaged in Northern Ireland’s working economy.
“We need to say to them: please come into our thriving businesses, there’s work to be done. We can offer you the training, the skills and the opportunity.
“Yet there’s a second part to the answer. An opportunity for leadership from the government in Westminster.
“Because outside the EU, for the first time in 40 years the government will have the opportunity and the responsibility to set an immigration policy that works for every part of the United Kingdom.”