The flare up of trouble across the North is a real kick in the teeth for business. Covid has been a disaster for business but the optimist in us saw light at the end of a very long tunnel. With one eye on daily case numbers and another on vaccination numbers many of us were confident of an economic recovery in the second half of 2020. And then this trouble kicked off. At a time when we should be promoting the real economic benefits of the NI Protocol around the world, we are instead watching news coverage of burning buses in Belfast light up screens in homes across the world. And I am not exaggerating because many of our international customers have been emailing me voicing their concerns.
And be under no illusion this will scare investors and tourists. Companies looking at the competitive advantage of being in NI to service the UK/EU will pause. We have heard that enquires from firms looking to locate in NI has peaked since the NI Protocol was agreed. Political stability is often cited as a major factor in locating any type of investment. Watching 13 yr. old kids being directed by adults to burn buses won't instil confidence. I'd hazard a guess that the hard working staff in Invest NI tasked with selling the North as a gateway into the UK/EU are tearing their hair out watching these images being beamed across the world. All their good work has literally went up in smoke. The only way to rescue this and reverse the negative press is to hope that the trouble quickly peters out. Then the marketing people can hit the reset button and rebuild the sales pitch. My advice is to let the trouble pass and then pause before spending any huge amounts of money or effort on the "NI as a Gateway to EU/UK" campaign. I would wait until after the July marching season has passed just in case it kicked off again. The story is too fresh in the minds of investors at the minute.
This flare up has cost the North 6 months in terms of time and more importantly the momentum which has been building post Brexit at attracting FDI has probably came to an abrupt halt. We have been here before and hopefully it's a pause and not a rethink by investors.
My other concern is for tourism. It's fair to say that the two biggest markets for the 2021 tourism season will be guests from GB and ROI. Even as vaccinations roll out people on these Islands will probably opt for staycations in 2021. The images of rioting and burning buses won't convince a family from Cardiff or Cork to book a staycation in Portrush or Bangor. We never make things easy for ourselves but there couldn't be a worse time for trouble to flare up than now. Many families across the UK and Ireland will be planning their summer holidays and seeking out new itineraries. Googling Belfast, Derry or Northern Ireland at the moment will just bring up images of burning buses rather than beautiful beaches. We really are shooting ourselves in the foot. A recovery in the Hospitality sector in Derry will be dependent on strong demand from the UK/ROI. I would go as far to say that business survival in 2021 needs big numbers of guests booking from GB/ROI as EU and US visitors will be suppressed. The marketing people in Councils across the North will be busy trying to negate these images with positive news stories and I expect quite a few will be spending considerable sums on Google ads.
So, to all the politicians out there the next few weeks are crucial. If we don't dial the language down, we risk thousands of jobs being lost by the end of the year.
It's also fair to say that the NI Protocol isn't going to be scrapped no matter how many buses are burned. It is an International Agreement signed between the EU and UK and to be blunt it's going absolutely nowhere. There might be a few mitigations to make NI/GB trade run smoother but that was always envisaged. To put it politely it's a done deal. No one on the UK side or EU side has the appetite to reopen it. Senior political leaders should be honest and careful with their language. You can say you want it scrapped but please point out this is extremely unlikely. Whipping up a crowd for votes is one thing but selling false hope that Unionist opposition will get the NI Protocol scrapped is wrong. Other parties like the TUV peddle this nonsense but challenge this narrative as an established political party rather than be led by Jim Allister. It's embarrassing and opportunistic.
If some Unionists fear their identity is being eroded then get around a table and negotiate. Also spare a thought for the majority who voted to Remain in the EU and feel both Irish and European. Remember it was a Sovereign British Govt which passed the Brexit Bill with a huge Parliamentary majority. They have ignored Unionism and the majority Pro European citizens in the North. Destroying your local community won't change that.
So why all this hullabaloo now? It's clear the Lucid Poll in early February caused the DUP to do a complete 180 regarding the NI Protocol. Within days of the Poll language like the "we must consider the opportunities the protocol offers NI” was replaced by "scrap the Protocol". A cynic would say the DUP know it won't be scrapped but by getting behind this campaign at least they can get back some of the votes they have lost to TUV. It really reminds me of the song we sang as wains "The Grand Old Duke of York he had 10,000 men. He marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again".
One thing for sure is that we need strong political leadership right across the North. Every day this goes on we risk the futures of our young people. They are being used as cannon fodder by others who whip them up with half-truths and lies. The fear of a criminal record doesn't deter these kids as many can't see a future where they have a job and a stake in their local community. Community regeneration and providing all our citizens with opportunity must be top of our Economic and Social agenda. Ignoring it for another 20 years isn't an option. We have to break the link.
And I repeat, it also threatens existing jobs and future investment. If this trouble runs into the July Marching season, we will lose the entire summer tourism revenue. If this happens many businesses will go bankrupt at the end of 2021.
Let's hope the worst is over and as Covid-19 eases we can all get out there and promote the NI Protocol across the world. As happens in news cycles, the story will go somewhere else and hopefully, we can put Derry front and centre for the right reasons.
And remember words matter.