A partnership with potential

Aug 14, 2017
Collaboration between the public and private sectors could greatly enhance the lives of those working in Northern Ireland.

It is a time of uncertainty for Northern Ireland. It is not controversial to suggest that this isn’t particularly helpful in terms of growing our economy, creating jobs or providing the best possible public services for our people.

Key factors are the ambiguity of Brexit and the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive, followed by slow-moving negotiations to reconstitute an Executive. There was hope that after the UK General Election, the Northern Ireland parties could form an Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly could reconvene and begin to address the questions posed. However, the breakthrough hasn’t happened yet and it now looks like it may have to wait until the autumn – or else we fall back to direct rule from Westminster.

We firmly hope that local political parties will be able to resolve outstanding issues to allow a budget, a new programme for government, direction and clarity for Northern Ireland to be put in place. It is important that our business leaders and political leaders work together to find a way through. Of course, the local business community will get on with things and continue to do business – it always has.

Imagine, though, how much better it would be if politicians, public sector decision makers and private sector leaders were working together to address the key issues. We need a collaborative approach from business and the public sector. It is the only way we can hope to deliver a sustainable economy and the social, health and education benefits that come with it. We want an approach that displays responsibility, accountability and maturity.

Leadership vacuum

Brexit is a key concern for the Institute’s members, both north and south of the border. Separate surveys in each jurisdiction found that 80% of members viewed Brexit as a negative factor in their region in the year ahead. 80% felt that Northern Ireland will be more negatively impacted by Brexit than other UK regions, while 87% felt that the Republic of Ireland’s trade relationship with the UK will suffer.

The detrimental effect of not having a Stormont Executive to address Brexit planning is hard to quantify, but it stands to reason that we would be better served by a group of elected representatives working together to speak for Northern Ireland and engaging with the business sector. It was noticeable that the EU chief negotiator, Michael Barnier, met with the first ministers of Scotland and Wales in July to “listen to different points of view”. Without an Executive, there was no-one to meet with from Northern Ireland.

The clear majority of members, north and south, want free trade in goods and services to be part of the UK’s deal with the EU and are opposed to a hard border on the island of Ireland.

No matter what your opinion of the UK’s relationship with the EU, those views suggest that the removal of customs barriers through a Customs Union has been one of the big successes of the EU project. One of Theresa May’s clearly-stated objectives is that the UK will leave the Customs Union as a result of Brexit. That means we could be back in a similar position to where we were before 1993 – a trade border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It will mean considerable change for businesses engaging in cross-border trade. It will require significant investment in planning and skills.

So what is the answer? Cooperation. Working together. There will need to be cooperation between business, public sector and political leaders in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. There will need to be cooperation between the EU, HM Revenue & Customs and the Irish Revenue. Local businesses, with the help of politicians and customs bodies, will need to work on their customs expertise.

Corporation tax

The Brexit challenge is just one area where renewed partnerships between the public and private sectors are necessary. Our Institute has been a strong advocate for a reduced rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland for many years. We first called for it over 10 years ago. The strong cross-border support for such a measure is both notable and commendable. It speaks volumes on the benefits that it could bring.

In a recent Ulster Society survey, members identified a reduced corporation tax rate as a key measure in improving the local economy. 63% said that a lower rate would have a positive effect on Northern Ireland’s economic performance. We believe that it represents an investment in the future growth of the economy and would act as a welcome catalyst for growth of the private sector. It is an attention grabber that enables those tasked with attracting inward investment to ‘get a foot in the door’ with potential investors.

The potential new rate of 12.5% and operation date of 1 April 2018 was announced as part of the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement. Since then, it has looked increasingly likely that the date will slip.

The agreement between the Conservative Party and the DUP following the UK General Election has provided a much-discussed funding deal which will take some immediate strain off the Northern Ireland public sector and will allow for some much needed infrastructure investment. The confidence and supply agreement has also brought focus back onto the prospect of corporation tax devolution, but it is reliant on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and it being able to “demonstrate its finances are on a sustainable footing”. If this can be delivered, it will be a tremendous boost for the private sector in Northern Ireland in an economy which is very much over-reliant on the public sector. If the will is there to make a deal work and to get a local Assembly working, there is potential for closer working between the public and private sectors.

Collaborative approach

My experience, both in practice and the public sector, has illustrated to me the power of business and the public sector working together. It is not an exclusive relationship; it does require a strong partnership. Perhaps some of this comes down to the public sector adopting more of a private sector attitude – a ‘can-do’ approach. Can the public sector allow the private sector a role in showing how to move away from risk-averse culture? Can those in the private sector be encouraged to ‘put their heads above the parapet’ and deal with the scrutiny that the public sector is so used to?

It goes far beyond the economy, however. A sustainable and diverse local economy is vital if we are to deliver on the social, health and education benefits we want to see. A strong economy will help us to provide greater opportunity and the best possible public services for our people. If Northern Ireland is a great place to do business, it will help us to ensure that Northern Ireland is also a great place to live.

The island of Ireland has fantastic potential. For a small place, we have a big impact around the world. There is much of which we can be proud but by working together and moving outside our comfort zones, we can achieve more. I believe that our profession has an important role to play in driving a collaborative approach. As leaders and decision-makers within organisations, and with careers and networks that stretch across sectors, we are in a great position to facilitate change.

At the inception of our profession, our predecessors were not just leaders within our profession. They were not only leaders of industry. They were leaders within the broader society in which we live. They brought business and civic life together. Many of our members today maintain that connection through their voluntary work – they bring their experience to bear for their local community.

I believe that we can expand on this and bring our professional expertise, our experience and ability to forge a strong link between the public and private sectors. This contribution has the potential to improve the lives of all within our communities. It’s a contribution that Chartered Accountants may be uniquely placed to make.

Pamela McCreedy FCA is Chair of the Chartered Accountants Ulster Society.