Posted on Wednesday 8 January 2014 by Ulster Business

Colin shrunk

CBI NI Chairman Colin Walsh talks to Ulster Business about the business organisation's outlook for the year ahead and the main issues it will be focusing on in 2014.

Economic indicators are improving, so do you expect 2014 to be a better year for your members than 2013?

Recent months have undoubtedly seen the first signs of more solid growth returning to the local economy. This reflects a growing confidence within our membership as to the more optimistic economic outlook before them. I expect the momentum to continue into 2014, though the headwinds will undoubtedly remain strong. Restraints on public expenditure and the continued relatively flat economic picture in many of our closest and long-standing export markets will mean there is little room for complacency.

What gives you cause for optimism about the future?

One of the major causes for optimism is the dynamism and leadership within our private sector. Given the almost unparalleled challenges that many business leaders have faced over the past five years, it is undoubted that the entrepreneurial spirit within the business community has seen many through to renewed opportunities for growth and expansion within the coming period. We have some great companies who are excelling in global markets – but we do need more of them.

What one thing would most help our businesses to thrive and achieve success?

As an organisation which has been at the forefront of the campaign, the ability for Northern Ireland to set its own rate of corporation tax rate remains the single most transformational economic tool which could drastically assist our economic fortunes. Many other policy solutions have been discussed but, based on both international comparators and indeed that of our nearest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, the evidence as to the potential that a lower corporation tax rate could offer potential investors and indigenous businesses is unquestionable.

What is the greatest challenge facing businesses in Northern Ireland?

While there are several significant policy challenges going into 2014, the one of perhaps most pertinence is the potential to reform employment law in Northern Ireland. Given that employment law is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, we have a great opportunity to put in place a regulatory framework which seeks to improve the competitiveness of Northern Ireland as we compete for investment from both growing indigenous companies and foreign direct investors. However I should add that for our manufacturers the costs of energy are a real concern – and the Executive and Utility Regulator need to set out a roadmap on how we can achieve more competitive prices

Is there any one economic issue that you think will dominate the headlines this year?

As we build up to the European Election in May, and the General Election twelve months thereafter, it is undoubted that that issue of Europe, and the UK's future position in it, will increasingly dominate the media's attention. Late in 2013 the CBI launched its own contribution to the debate: Our Global Future: the business vision for a reformed EU. The report is unequivocal - after consulting with the business community as to what one of the key foundations of the UK's continued success will continue to be – membership of a reformed European Union is vital.

What are the top three issues your organisation will be focusing on in 2014?

The top of our policy focus will undoubtedly be two subjects we have already detailed – namely the campaign to achieve a lower corporation tax rate for Northern Ireland and reform of our outdated and increasingly uncompetitive employment laws.

A further area of focus is energy. This is, without question, a significant point of concern for our members across the various business sectors but, particularly, large energy users. From the increasingly uncompetitive electricity costs for large industrial/commercial users, to the cost of decarbonisation, to medium-term concerns over security of supply, we strongly take the view that this is an area which requires urgent Government focus.

A final issue but increasing importance is around education and skills and ensuring we align our education and training system more closely with the needs of the economy. Expect to hear more of this from CBI Northern Ireland in early 2014.

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