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Brendan Hughes: Northern Irish business leaders send word to DUP to bring back Stormont

Brendan Hughes: Northern Irish business leaders send word to DUP to bring back Stormont

On the terrace of the House of Commons overlooking the River Thames, the great and the good gathered this week for the launch of a report on Northern Ireland’s economy.

Rather than the gloomy perception of the region that some might expect, the Trade NI event was full of positivity for the future.

The report praised Northern Ireland’s “incredible economic success story” as it charted how the region has changed in the 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement.

Read more: Analysis: ‘Go back to work’ is key message from voters in Northern Ireland council elections

The Windsor Framework was warmly welcomed, with the Brexit protocol deal for Northern Ireland described as a “unique proposal” granting dual access to European Union and UK markets.

The newspaper said the trade deal is expected to boost GDP growth, with an expected 50% increase over the next decade to £66 billion and the creation of 33,000 new jobs.

“It is hoped that political leaders in Northern Ireland can agree on the Windsor framework and then the region can take full advantage of the unique circumstances the framework offers to businesses in Northern Ireland,” it added.

Speakers at the Tuesday afternoon reception were equally positive about Northern Ireland’s future post-Windsor Framework.

Sir Nigel Knowles, CEO of legal services firm DWF Group, said Northern Ireland has the potential to become an “economic powerhouse”.

He told the reception that the Windsor Framework puts the region in a “truly unique position” to do business with the EU.

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Listening all the while as the drinks flowed and nibbles were served was DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

The event was by no means a tease to the party about continuing to block the power-sharing institutions in protest against the protocol.

There was no cheering crowd comparable to Queen’s University’s recent Good Friday Agreement conference, nor the punishments seen at some U.S. engagements in the St. Patrick’s period.

But the message from the marquee at Westminster was clear: business wants Stormont back.

It has been clear for some time now that many in the DUP want this too, especially after the results of last week’s municipal elections.

The party won the battle within the unions and won the votes that had drifted to the tougher TUV last year.

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But the DUP’s Stormont boycott strategy to outflank the margin has also served to disillusion many unionist voters – and push more nationalists towards Sinn Féin.

Regardless of their reservations about the protocol, re-establishing a stable decentralized government will be seen by many union members as the only way to reverse the rise of their Republican rivals.

The dilemma for Sir Jeffrey remains how to maneuver the DUP back to Stormont while keeping his group aboard and saving face.

First, it is expected that the government will make some legislative move that the DUP can sell to its supporters as a further concession that secures Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

The party’s “seven tests” seem to have quietly disappeared.

Second, and a growing focus, is the issue of money. Amid Stormont’s budgetary pressures, the parties appear poised to ask the Treasury for a package of more than £1bn to accompany any return of devolution.

Chris Heaton-Harris seems coy for now, saying he wants the executive “to get down to business before we get close to other questions,” but the secretary of state is familiar with reversing.

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He also said he is waiting for “final questions” in terms of any legal assurances the DUP is asking for regarding the Windsor Framework.

Further negotiations will be necessary, but any signs of a Stormont resurgence appear as positive as Northern Ireland business leaders’ prospects for the future.


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