Northern Ireland is a great place to live, work, invest and visit. It has a skilled workforce, relatively low property prices and it has not reached retail saturation in the burgeoning towns and cities that are home to over 1.8 million shoppers.
This is not the usual beginning to an opinion piece discussing the woes of the UK’s smallest constituent country, but it is exactly why retailers are so frustrated with the workings of politics here. They can see the latent potential for the industry in Northern Ireland.
On Saturday, September 8, Northern Ireland reaches the shame-inspiring record of 600 days without a government. This would have been a world record were it not for the fact that Westminster can still technically pass laws. We can’t even do dubious world titles well.
The collapse of the Executive was over a botched renewable heating scheme and talks upon talks have been frustrated by the two main parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, painting themselves into corners, with red line on top of red line on issues such as Irish language and LGBTQ rights.
Northern Ireland is, if not the land that time forgot, the land that cohesive partnership government forgot. A sort of party political dysfunctional Groundhog Day.
Retailers and consumers, however, have not stood still. In these 600 days, consumers have made more than 18 million transactions. Retailers have bought more than £4bn of Northern Ireland agri-food produce (around a quarter of everything produced in the country) and have paid around £240m in business rates.
We continue to be Northern Ireland’s largest private sector employer and sustain thousands more jobs through our supply chain and industries such as service and construction.
“While Stormont has stopped functioning, our message is very clear – Northern Ireland is still open for business”
While Stormont has stopped functioning, our message is very clear – Northern Ireland is still open for business. There are huge opportunities for retailers tenacious enough to make the leap of faith across the Irish sea and to avail of agri-food that is second to none.
But there is a symbiotic relationship between business and politics. The mission-critical decisions that the retail industry needs are simply not being taken.
While Scotland is cracking on with implementing changes to its rates system, NI has seen no change to its antiquated system that is an impediment to investment. We are 12% of the NI economy but pay 24% of rates. This inequality is simply untenable.
While others can access the huge monies paid into the Apprenticeship Levy, and in Scotland they have a flexible skills fund, here the levy is simply a tax on business. The longer this goes on the longer we will fall behind our neighbours, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, with no retail strategy and no retail lead official.
Up in the air
As responsible retailers, our members are also concerned that the lack of an Executive means that legislation to further protect shop workers, which is being considered across Great Britain, simply has no means of being brought forward in Northern Ireland.
This is all before we start considering Brexit. As the only part of the UK with a Eurozone border and as NI consumers already have less than half the discretionary income of British homes, it will hit here hardest.
Questions are already being raised about how possible price rises will affect households and even bigger questions on the integrity of supply chains from food to medicines. No Assembly, no Executive, no representation.
“Retailers no longer acquiesce to this stagnant status quo and are making the best of the many opportunities that NI presents”
In the short term this political stagnation is making NI a much less attractive place to do business. But there is hope. Industry groups are forging ahead with policy ideas and innovations that continue to make NI more business-friendly and consumer-ready.
Retailers no longer acquiesce to this stagnant status quo and are making the best of the many opportunities that NI presents. The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has already brought pressure to bear to kill off a proposed 10% rates hike.
We have formed strategic alliances with groups such as the Consumer Council so that our messages can simply not be ignored. We continue to take our fight to our NI politicians, to Westminster and even to Dublin. Our MLAs need to get back to work.
This is a complex situation with even more complex solutions. But what I would ask you to remember is… Northern Ireland is a great place to live, work, invest and visit.