by Richard Buckley, Editor, Business Eye

Our call to the business organisations last week to stop pandering to our local politicians turned out to be well timed…if accidentally. Shortly after the blog hit your screens, the NI Chamber of Commerce had all of the main party leaders at their big Richard Hammond gig at Belfast Waterfront.


There they all were, knocking back the free wine (well…..some of them), feasting on the fruits of the business community’s wealth-creating largesse, smiling, laughing and behaving a little like normal human beings.

But a couple of them choked on their petit fours when the bold Ellvena Graham (the Chamber’s President) stood up to speak. Ellvena, unusually for business organisation leaders, dispensed with the fawning over politicians and didn’t miss and hit the wall when it came to mentioning the little matter of Stormont….or the lack of it.

“Businesses,” said Ellvena, “are increasingly shadow boxing in an atmosphere of uncertainty and require the support of active and engaged public representatives to boost their confidence at this critical time.

“It’s exactly 304 days since we had a functioning Executive – that’s 304 days without political leadership or a social strategy or an economic strategy.

“The draft programme for Government published at the end of last year and aimed at creating a better society – is covered in cobwebs.  Control of the Northern Ireland budget is out of our hands and is now being set at Westminster.”

So the star turn was meant to be the expensive Richard Hammond. But it turned out to be the home-grown Ellvena Graham.

But do you think the party leaders really heard what she was saying? Of course they didn’t.

Ellvena apart, it never ceases to amaze us how some business people can still be serial politicial a***lickers. We picked up a fawning tweet from one award-winning and high profile business leader (who shall remain nameless except that she’s female and in recruitment…..) talking about how wonderful it was to see Arlene & Michelle and how the business community is right behind them, etc, etc…..!

Right behind them for doing what exactly…..?

Letter From America

Richard Haass, the former US envoy to Northern Ireland, got a few unionist hackles up this week with his rather bleak assessment of the state of play here.

Safely on the other side of the Atlantic, he kicked off his comments by saying that, now that Gerry Adams’ long goodbye is underway, there were no real leaders of standing on either side. No one to match Ian Paisley, Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams, in other words. Harsh? Or is it something we’ve all been thinking…..?

But Haass didn’t stop there. He went on to say that the British Government is stuck between a rock and a hard place in that it’s ‘wedded to Brexit’, and that Brexit ‘raises a whole lot of questions about the border and the future of Northern Ireland.’ And it’s only surviving because of the help of the DUP, of course.

Dr Haass said the British government was in a “difficult position” but that most of the “heavy lifting” in negotiations such as these must be done by local politicians.

“The Sinn Féin leadership is fairly new and untested and the DUP leadership is in a difficult situation given the investigation into their past practices and their proximity to the British government,”

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he said.

“Even if Stormont is restored I don’t think anyone should think that that is the answer, I worry about the inability to deal with the past and to deal with some other basic day-to-day questions and how people will deal with the fallout of Brexit.”

Not a very optimistic assessment, is it? But it’s a bit hard to find too much fault with it either…..

Shared Futures…..Shared Classrooms

We make no apology for being a big fan of the concept of integrated education. As one of the media business’s big guns, Colin Anderson, once put it……”They divide our kids at four years old for 15 years and then demand by law that our employers have a harmonious mixed workforce.

Integrated education has come on in leaps and bounds since its very early days when Lagan & Hazelwood Colleges were the only examples of a very lonely breed. These days, there are integrated schools all over the place and increasing numbers of our kids are educated alongside those of a different religion.

But hundreds of childen are turned away every year by integrated schools unable to cope with the numbers. So the simple fact is that we need more of them.

Despite this, integrated education still has a way to go, and still has to swim against a tide of intransigence of politicians, of governments, of churches and of died in the wool one-religion education bodies.

We’ve been watching the rise of so-called shared education with interest. It’s a kind of halfway house between the old way of doing things and the new. The prime example is the proposed Strule Education Campus in Omagh. A mix of grammar, non-grammar, Catholic, sttate and special schools will eventually occupy the site. So far, just one has opened. It’s an £8.2 million special school which is integrated by its very nature. And the whole thing could cost £140 million at today’s rates…..if it ever makes it over the line, that is!

Meanwhile, to illustrate how farcical the situation can become, down in Moy, two village schools plan to become one…..but not in the way most of us would hope. The schools will share a single building and one entrance, but that’s about as far as it goes. The Catholic and Protestant children will occupy different wings (with a green door and an orange door, perhaps), have separate classrooms and retain their own teachers, governors and even uniforms.

Yep, one school and two uniforms. It could only happen in Northern Ireland.

Still, let’s keep up the pressure. One day, one day…..all of our children will go to school together.

Budget Blues

Chancellor Philip Hammond’s budget turned out to be a fairly dull affair. The national media continues to sit with bated breath each year at budget time….and sometimes you have to wonder why? Sometimes it’s hard to see how anyone outside of chain-smoking alcoholics who drive big diesel cars would have any interest.

However, it least it was OK for Norn Iron. Apparently, we’re to get £540 million more for ‘infrastructure’……although it should be noted that both Scotland and Wales were handed more than that.

The nod to the Belfast City Deal is good news. It certainly rattled Colum Eastwood’s cage. He was quick to moan that Derry should get what Belfast might be getting. But that’s not really how it works, Colum.

And the even better news is that things are looking good on air passenger duty and VAT on tourism here. Get those sorted, and we can really start raking it in on the visitor front.

So, not bad at all, Philip. And, as an aside, a rare pat on the back for Jimmy Brokenshire, who used his post-budget TV interviews to have a crack at the DUP and Sinn Fein. The extra money, budgetary boosts, the moves in the right direction need a devolved administration to push them forward.

Sense In The City

Well done to Glyn Roberts of Retail NI for highlighting the fact that nearly 111,000 parking and bus lane fine have been issued to motorists between January and September of this year. It’s a truly shocking figure, and one which backs up the view that lots of us now live and work in an anti-car city.

Now, before anyone jumps on us, we get the point of discouraging cars from the city centre…..up to a point. Providing the public transport system is right up there with the best of them, it makes sense. But we’re not there yet, are we?

Retail NI, of course, comes at all of this from the perspective of the city’s retailers and they have every right to feel aggrieved. The punitive and autocratic anti-car regime is pretty much bound to have a negative impact on shoppers who, for reasons best known to themselves, actually want to travel into the city centre by car.

Glyn Roberts, a spokesman for whom the retail industry should be indebted, called it an ‘over-zealous’ fining policy and one that sends out a negative message to shoppers who have the audacity to use their cars. The only winners, he said, are the big, boring out of town supermarkets. And he’s right (….although he didn’t say ‘boring’. That’s called journalistic licence.)

Bless This House

Still, if we can’t drive into town for a meeting or to do a spot of Christmas shopping, at least we can sit at home and enjoy how its price is rising.

In Q3 of 2017, the price of our little palaces (and the big ones) increased by a healthy 5.8% on average according to the Ulster University’s latest Quarterly House Price Index, produced in partnership with Progressive Building Society.

The latest report reveals an overall average house price of £160,758, up 1.9% over the year.

Activity during the first six months of 2017 was characterised by sluggish and variable rates of price growth though these were underpinned by strong sales volumes. The firming up of price levels in this quarter suggests that the housing market is picking up in the second half of the year, and that the market is less concerned about macro economic issues. Brexit included, one can only presume.

Can’t be bad news, can it?

Growing, Growing….Grown

And the good news just keeps on coming, despite the lack of political leadership.

Belfast has just been identified as the UK city with best growth potential for small businesses.

Business owners, it seems, expect their business to grow by 41% over the next 12 months (which seems like a lot…..), outperforming the wider economy by quite a margin.

That’s just one finding of a new report released today by an organisation called Square, which surveyed 1,200 small business owners nationwide.

The report created a ranking of cities based on their growth potential for small businesses, looking at regional differences including business confidence levels, growth expectations, technology adoption and infrastructure. Belfast came out on the top, with Nottingham and Cardiff in the runners-up spots. The UK’s capital city, London, appeared 10th out of the 15 cities ranked.

Small businesses in Belfast were by far the most ambitious, 71% said they are “confident” or “very confident” about the business environment, including their ability to hire, expand and invest. Their confidence is further buoyed by a strong local community, with 65% of consumers surveyed in Belfast saying they already do, or would shop locally in the future.

It all seems a little too optimistic, one can’t help but think. But what’s not to like about this happy, clappy kind of stuff?

Shaping Up For Investment

Finally, finally…..a reminder about The Belfast Shapers $1m investment event with Fenox Venture Capital, which is being brought to Belfast on 16th January next year in the Ormeau Baths. A high powered judging panel has been announced and will be made up of…….

  • Cathriona Hallahan, Managing Director of Microsoft Ireland
  • Helen Lennon, CEO of Secure Broadcast
  • Tristan Watson, CEO of Ignite Accelerator
  • Tim Brundle, Director of Research at Ulster University

The winner of the Belfast pitch will go to Silicon Valley in the chance of winning $1m investment and an introduction to networks across the states.

With the support of Belfast City Council and Ulster University, the Shapers are calling for start-up businesses across Northern Ireland to apply via the Fenox website before the 24th November deadline.

In 2017 StartUp World Cup attracted 1,500 attendees, with over 200 journalists. The final was hosted by Steve Wozniak, Co-Founder of Apple, with companies such as Reddit, Shark Tank and Garage Technology Ventures giving key note speeches.

If you are a local and creative start-up and want to get involved, you can enter via the link below:

http://www.startupworldcup.io/northern-ireland-application

No business, they stress, will be ruled out based on turnover, staffing size or years active, but will be assessed on an individual basis, looking at forward-thinking technology, innovative ideas and an ability to scale.

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