27 April 2018

  |  CBI Press Team


Business stands together in Northern Ireland

At the CBI Northern Ireland Dinner, Director General Carolyn Fairbairn calls for an end to prevarication over the future of the Irish border, and commends Northern Irish business for speaking up during the most important negotiations for Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement.


Thank you.

It’s a great pleasure to be here.  

This week, the CBI did something unusual.

So did the Trades Union Congress.

Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, and I together signed a public letter, published on Tuesday.

About the future of the Irish border.

We don’t speak in unison very often. In fact, it is very rare.

We share a goal of prosperity for our country, but we tend to emphasise different things. 

Not this week. 

When the issue is so human and so central to people’s lives, we can and do stand shoulder to shoulder.

And what we said on Tuesday is this. 

With less than a year to go until the UK leaves the European Union, the government must declare that a hard Irish border will not be reinstated after Brexit.

And as importantly, the government must explain how this will be achieved.

Now is the time to replace warm words with wise decisions.

Because 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 would entail for people here, for their jobs, rights and livelihoods.


All that is at stake

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 close to its lowest on record.
  • Northern Irish product exports have risen at an average of 6% a year, year on year, for 20 years.

Why risk throwing this away?

Companies here generate £70bn a year in sales.

Just look at the success of the £5 billion food and drink industry.

The tech start-ups that today make Northern Ireland a global hub for cyber-security and FinTech.

The booming tourist and film industries.

Northern Ireland’s world-leading pharmaceutical industries.

Companies like Norbrook, which has just completed a £30 million investment programme, and is now clocking up double-digit growth in the States.

Or Devenish Nutrition, with sales across the globe, from here to the US, Turkey, Mexico and Africa.

Or, of course, Bombardier.

Northern Ireland’s largest manufacturer, supporting thousands of jobs.

Bombardier relies on an integrated supply chain - reaching across multiple European borders, and excels in just-in-time manufacturing. 

Companies like Bombardier can’t afford border hold-ups.

In fact, the aerospace and defence industry, so important to Northern Ireland, has estimated that any new customs processes could cost the industry up to £2bn a year.

And that’s just one industry.

There’s also what it means for the 30,000 people who cross that border to work each day.

The countless companies running all-island businesses, and all those for whom the border has become just a relic from the past.

Northern Ireland today is a place of great achievement and great promise.

Why risk throwing all this away - a generation of progress, so hard won? 

That’s the question we’re putting to the government in Westminster.

And we’re saying - this is the time to put politics and ideology aside.

To end the prevarication.

We have been clear. Perhaps clearer than some would like. 

The CBI has said that a new customs union with the EU would help keep the border open, and allow Northern Ireland to continue to prosper.

In fact, 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 not yet. 

A deal where the UK and EU collect each other’s tariffs may one day be plausible and work for business. But not now. 

And trade deals around the world may one day compensate for EU trade lost due to new European border barriers. 

But that day is not yet here. 

And we can prove it.

So both sides should explore new customs union options. 

Alongside ways to maintain convergence in goods regulation – the other essential ingredient of a wholly frictionless border. 

Of course, some have suggested establishing a customs border in the Irish sea.

But that just moves the problem.

And arguably makes it worse.

Exports from Northern Ireland to Great Britain are 4 times greater than to the Republic of Ireland.

We are making these arguments in Westminster, but we are also making them in the EU27.

Because EU countries too have much to lose from a hard border in Ireland.

And much to gain if we get it right.

I know this, not just from our own international members, though they are very clear. 

But also from our sister business organisations across Europe – BDI in Germany, Medef in France, FEB in Belgium, and IBEC in the Republic. 

We are working in partnership across Europe to put jobs and prosperity ahead of ideology and politics.

And I am absolutely delighted that Danny McCoy, IBEC’s CEO is here with us this evening – a powerful advocate for Irish business.

The messages are clear.  

This is a time for open minds. 

A time to soften red lines.

A time to consider new models and new solutions.

After all – Norway, Switzerland, Ukraine, Turkey all operate under different EU models. 

And all were new once.


Northern Ireland Executive

And of course, we don’t forget for a moment that Northern Ireland is currently not at the Brexit table as a participant. 

It is there instead as an item on the agenda.

As a subject for discussion. 

This is not how it should be. 

Right now, in Westminster, Dublin, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, politicians are running the most important negotiations for Northern Ireland in a generation.

Yet it has no voice of its own.

I won’t labour the point. You know the facts.

How two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has now been 16 months without an executive.

There’s no Programme for Government.

No industrial or economic strategy.

No corporation tax cut that would have brought Northern Ireland in line with the Republic of Ireland.

And no directly elected voice of devolved government in the Brexit negotiations.

I repeat - this is not how it should be.

Yet what is so remarkable is that Northern Irish firms have not thrown their hands up in despair.

But instead, 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.

At the CBI, you have our total and unwavering support.

And by working together, we get results.

First there was the transition deal.

From the day after the EU referendum, businesses started to call the CBI’s offices, in Belfast and across the UK.

They said – to meet this challenge, we need time.

So we went to Westminster and to Brussels.

And we made the case for a status-quo transition from the EU, rather than a cliff-edge drop.

And both sides said “no”.

So we gathered the evidence. 

From thousands of businesses across the UK.

But as so often, it was the Northern Irish businesses that made the case so compelling.  

And we were able to use their stories.

The bakeries that make bread each morning in the North for sale that day in the South. 

The life science firms that manufacture medicines on one side and package them on the other. 

Real firms, real people, real stories.

And those stories cut through. 

Now that transition deal is within touching distance. 

There’s a lesson in this.

About what business can achieve when we speak with one voice.

Now we’re doing it again on frictionless trade and the Irish border. 

And again, we have others with us – the TUC among them. 

We are making progress.

So much so, that along the corridors and negotiating tables of Westminster, Berlin, Brussels and Paris…

…the Brexit question has become the Northern Irish question.

That didn’t happen by accident.

It’s because Northern Irish voices and Northern Irish businesses have put it there.

And we will make sure it stays there until fully resolved. 

And here, may I take this opportunity to pay tribute to our fantastic CBI team here in Northern Ireland, led by Angela McGowan, and to our great chair Trevor. 

You have led the charge and galvanised us all behind you. 

Thank you.


People - an immigration policy that works

And finally, I want to fix our eyes on the future – beyond Brexit.

There’s much to be done.

I would like to pick one area in particular.

And that’s Northern Ireland’s future as a place where people aspire to live and work.

In the twenty 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.

They have been welcomed.

And the economy has grown.

So much so, that it has outpaced the population available to do the work.

It is this pressure that accounts for those record employment figures.

And it is, of course, a nice problem to have. A fantastic turning point. 

But its effects are now being felt almost everywhere.

From a shortage of engineers and pharmacists, to the hospitality sector, and the waitresses, waiters, chefs and events managers who make evenings like tonight a success.

It’s a challenge with two solutions.

First, those of us in business need to act.

We need to look to those who today are not engaged in Northern Ireland’s working economy.

And to say to them: please join us.

There’s work to be done.

We can offer you the training.

The skills, and the opportunity.

So many companies are already doing just that.

Firms like Northern Ireland Electricity Networks.

British Telecom.

Offering apprenticeships to some of Northern Ireland’s most disadvantaged young people.

Drawing the circle of prosperity ever wider.

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.

It needs to be right.

Because in recent days, we’ve seen an abject lesson in how not to do it.

Despite a lifetime’s contribution to Britain, people have been told they do not belong here.

This is wrong. 

Ministers have said they are sorry and taking steps to put things right. 

That is of course welcome.  But there are lessons to learn for the future.

This crisis was caused by a policy based on numbers, not on people.

A policy fixated on a target of reducing net migration to under 100 thousand a year. 

For almost a decade, the message to civil servants has been: find a way to say “no”.

Mistakes like the inexcusable treatment of the Windrush generation became far too likely.

And perhaps even inevitable. 

This must change.

And Northern Ireland – which has such a need for people and talent – has much at stake.

Those 30 thousand people who cross the border to work each day.

Their right to continue to do so must be confirmed.

Those who come from the across the whole of the EU.

To work for Northern Ireland’s start-ups.

In the factories.

The labs.

The film studios.

Their rights must continue too.

Above all, we need an agile immigration policy that sees individuals not as one more digit in a bureaucratic tally, but as people.

As nurses, engineers, designers, chefs.

And as colleagues, spouses, friends, sons, daughters.

This doesn’t mean giving up control.

But it does mean designing an immigration policy that is kind, a word that seems to have gone missing from our political lexicon.

It shouldn’t be hard to resolve.

It’s in everyone’s interests.

But as with the border, we need to make the case.

So, thank you for your support.



But let me conclude.

Modern Northern Ireland stands as a testament to those who negotiated peace 20 years ago, and to everyone, from all walks of life, who has replaced division with reconciliation.

Let us not now impose a new division, just because our politicians were afraid to face hard reality.

I believe all of us in the room this evening have cause to be optimistic. 

Because business in Northern Ireland is speaking up.

And around the negotiating tables of Brussels, Westminster and across Europe, your voice is being heard.

It’s the business voice that will help secure that open border.

It’s the business voice that will shape an immigration policy that works for people and prosperity.

Business is what will ensure Northern Ireland remains a great place to live and work.

And when Brexit’s done, Northern Ireland will still be the only part of the UK to share a border with the EU.

This place will still be full of resilience and determination.

And it will still be peaceful and prosperous, because you have helped make it so.

So, thank you for all you are doing.

Thank you for your leadership.

For speaking up.

For making your case.

We are proud to be by your side.

Thank you. 


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