The pipeline of investors considering moving into Northern Ireland is stronger than ever as companies seek to exploit the dual market access offered by the Brexit protocol, MPs have been told.
Experts in investment and policy highlighted opportunities offered by the Northern Ireland Protocol as they gave evidence to a Westminster Committee.
Under the terms of the protocol agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland traders have unfettered access to sell products both into the European single market and within the UK internal market.
While the experts emphasised the advantages businesses could secure under the protocol, they also stressed the need to resolve the uncertainty around the more contentious aspects of the protocol, primarily the trade barriers it has created for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Gareth Hagan, a senior executive in a firm specialising in facilitating foreign investment, told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that investors are aware of the business edge Northern Ireland has secured.
The deputy chief executive of OCO Global said: “I would say that there is an opportunity here to be grasped…
“I think the fundamentals of market access, the fundamentals of the dual market access that we have, the proximity of a very significant market for Northern Ireland and the UK basically on our doorstep – I think all of those basically in any context would be looked at as a very significant competitive advantage that one would seek to leverage.”
Mr Hagan highlighted other reasons why Northern Ireland is attractive to investors, such as a low-cost and business-friendly environment.
He said the interest is not limited to foreign investors, highlighting that companies from elsewhere in the UK are also aware of the potential benefits of investing in Northern Ireland.
“I do know, I have it on good authority, that the investment pipeline in terms of investors with an interest in Northern Ireland is stronger than it’s ever been,” he said.
However, he warned that uncertainty and complexity around the protocol, as well as the political contention it has created, could hinder prospective investors from making firm commitments to the region.
He said there is a need to focus in on the detail of the issues causing problems, and find solutions.
“I think we can actually demystify quite a lot of that and create some clarity and some assurance to give us a stable basis to move forward,” he said.
Ann Watt, director of the Pivotal Public Policy Forum, told the committee: “I think businesses will tell you the protocol offers big opportunities for Northern Ireland in the unfettered access to both markets.”
She also stressed the need to find resolutions to the outstanding issues with the protocol’s operation.
But she said some companies have already taken the decision to put operations into Northern Ireland to take advantage of the dual market access.
“Businesses are already doing that, there are some that are already relocating operations to Northern Ireland because of the market access, so I think that’s something that can be built on,” she told MPs.
Business and investors want certainty and they want predictability, and the political difficulties that there are at the minute mean that they’re not getting either of those things
“However, of course, business and investors want certainty and they want predictability, and the political difficulties that there are at the minute mean that they’re not getting either of those things, they are not getting the certainty and predictability. So, I think we need a quick resolution.”
Ms Watt said the most crucial thing for prospective investors is stability in government.
She also claimed that Stormont has “fallen short” in terms of long-term planning for investment.
“All the evidence would suggest that the biggest thing foreign direct investors look for is stability in government,” she said.
“Investors also look for a Government that has a clear economic plan and a clear investment plan for the future.
“I would suggest that one of the shortcomings of the Northern Ireland Executive is it lacks that ambition for the future.
“I would say the Executive has fallen short on that in terms of really grasping the opportunities and also has not put in place longer term plans for investment in infrastructure, skills, R&D and so on, that would really convince investors of the future direction of government policy in Northern Ireland.”