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17 April 2018 | By Trevor Lockhart Insight

A message from the US

On visiting Washington DC, CBI's Northern Ireland Chair Trevor Lockhart found marketing Northern Ireland is more challenging than it should be

Last month I was delighted to join a delegation of NI business leaders that travelled to Washington DC to mark St Patrick’s Day and celebrate the historic link between America and the island of Ireland. From my perspective, it was a great opportunity to join counterparts from the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses in making the case that Northern Ireland remains a great place to invest and do businesses.

Reflecting on the visit, the first thing I’d like to stress is that the reception in Washington was extremely warm. While there remains a tremendous amount of goodwill towards Northern Ireland and the overall mood of the visit was positive and optimistic, the absence of a functioning Executive at Stormont hasn’t gone unnoticed across the pond. Questions were asked about what this means for political stability and Northern Ireland’s attractiveness for investment. With this week marking 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, it shouldn’t be forgotten that America still feels it has a considerable stake in Northern Ireland’s future success, something that will be further emphasised during President Clinton’s visit this week. 

20 years since the signing of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, America still feels it has a considerable stake in Northern Ireland's future success

While there is clear recognition of the progress made in the past two decades, and an understanding that Northern Ireland will suffer its fair share of ups and downs, those I met with in Washington were keen to encourage our political parties to reach compromise in the interest of peace and prosperity. There is a strong belief among those that I spoke to that while the current impasse is neither desirable nor helpful, it can and will be overcome. 

As you might expect, Brexit came up frequently in discussions. Among those businesses that we met, there was genuine confusion about why the UK would leave the EU and the advantageous trade opportunities it provides. Many were far from persuaded about the case for Brexit and they were particularly sceptical about the future economic opportunities its proponents believe it will deliver. Many also expressed a belief that a mutually beneficial free trade agreement between the UK and US would be extremely difficult to achieve. After all, “putting America first” is more than just idle sloganeering for the current administration.

To illustrate the practical impact of Brexit on US companies, I spoke with leading figures from major US multinationals that told me they had spent tens of millions of pounds this year on planning and recalibrating their businesses for the UK’s life outside the EU – significant sums that could otherwise have been used for investment or driving productivity gains. For the most part, our US counterparts recognise the crucial role that business is playing in advocating for a pragmatic, evidence-based approach to negotiations. They see that minimising uncertainty is key and, in such a febrile political environment, greatly value our cool headed approach. 

There is work to be done to ensure that we reinforce the mutual benefits of continued trade and investment

Against this backdrop, marketing Northern Ireland was perhaps more challenging than it has been for some time. With more practical and straightforward concerns, in the form of corporation tax and uncertainty over funding models for universities, also biting, there is work to be done to ensure that we reinforce the mutual benefits of continued trade and investment.

America remains a great friend to Northern Ireland but it’s a relationship that requires some careful attention. While there is no doubt that we need to get our house in order, we can’t forget that relationships are a two-way street. The recent trade dispute over Bombardier provided a pertinent reminder that a little more understanding from their side also wouldn’t go amiss.  

Originally published in the News Letter’s View from the Chair column. See https://www.newsletter.co.uk/ for further details.

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