Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I wish to make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 about a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in trade and business development sectoral format. The meeting was held in Armagh by videoconference on 25 November 2020. Minister Conor Murphy MLA and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive. The Irish Government were represented by Leo Varadkar, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Tánaiste. The statement has been agreed with Minister Murphy, and I make it on behalf of us both.
The Council noted the impact of the pandemic on society and on the economy in both jurisdictions and the measures put in place by both Administrations to support communities and businesses affected by the crisis and to assist economic recovery. Ministers welcomed the productive cooperation between both Administrations and InterTradeIreland on support for businesses facing challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and noted that InterTradeIreland will continue to provide support to assist businesses in coping with the challenges posed by the pandemic, particularly in the areas of supply chain management, health and safety and human resources.
Ministers noted the work being carried out to prepare for the end of the transition period and the implications for cooperation in the trade and business development sector arising from the UK's withdrawal.
Ministers welcomed the overall achievements of InterTradeIreland from 2016 to 2020 and recognised the valuable contribution that it has made through its trade and development programmes for small and medium-sized companies trading across the border and in both jurisdictions. Ministers commended InterTradeIreland for its work in helping businesses to prepare for the UK withdrawal from the EU and for its research on the issue. The Council recognised the impact of the innovation and technology programmes run by InterTradeIreland and its support for building relationships between companies and researchers.
The Council approved InterTradeIreland's business plans, budgets and grants for 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 and its 2017-19 corporate plan, which have been completed in accordance with agreed guidance issued by the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and agreed by the sponsor Departments and Finance Ministers. Ministers noted InterTradeIreland’s annual reports and accounts for 2016, 2017 and 2018, which have been certified by the Comptrollers and Auditors General and laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas.
Ministers asked sponsor Departments to consider InterTradeIreland's staffing complement, in consultation with the NSMC secretariat and the Finance Departments, and to provide an update to the next trade and business development meeting. The Council approved the appointment of Martin McVicar as vice chairman, Michael Hanley and Richard Kennedy, and the re-appointment of Florence Bayliss, Adrienne McGuinness and Micheál Briody, to the board of InterTradeIreland.
Ministers noted the progress and current position of North/South collaboration in relation to the Horizon 2020 programme and the achievements and current position of the US-Ireland R&D Partnership. Ministers noted that InterTradeIreland will continue to work with relevant stakeholders, including sponsor Departments, to explore new ways, both financial and non-financial, to maintain and strengthen research and innovation collaboration across both jurisdictions.
Ministers noted that the process for appointing a chief executive officer to InterTradeIreland has commenced, using the existing approved process and following consultation with the NSMC joint secretariat and the respective Finance Departments.
Finally, Ministers thanked Aidan Gough and Margaret Hearty for their work in successfully leading InterTradeIreland, as designated officer and assistant designated officer respectively, since they were appointed to those positions in September 2017. The Council agreed to meet again in trade and business development format in spring 2021. I commend the statement to the Assembly.
I thank the Minister for her statement. In it, she said that it was noted that work was carried out to prepare for the end of the transition period. A couple of weeks ago, the Committee for the Economy received a briefing from officials on business preparedness. We were told that InterTradeIreland's all-island business monitor for quarter 3 showed that only 9% of firms had plans in place to mitigate the impacts of Brexit. In the light of that, what is being done by both the Department and InterTradeIreland to help businesses to prepare following the announcements last week on the protocol and the ongoing lack of clarity about the overall trade deal?
I thank the Member for her question. InterTradeIreland has a number of programmes that it has been using to help those businesses that it works with to prepare for the end of the transition period. That, as well as the work that Invest Northern Ireland is doing, has been important in helping businesses to prepare.
Just so that we could have a little bit of thought about that, I printed off, for the week beginning 7 December, the kind of things that, for example, Invest Northern Ireland was doing with businesses. They include working with businesses in the chemicals industry, fisheries and the legal sphere; looking at authorised economic operator status, the export of live animals and animal products, the moving of animal products from 1 January, inward processing relief, customs warehousing, and the trading and moving of goods in and out of Northern Ireland; and providing a large range of information and webinar support to businesses just last week.
Of course, the Member is absolutely correct: last week's announcement will have helped significantly, particularly around the movement of goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and the fact that there will not be excess paperwork and bureaucracy. That still leaves the issue of the Trader Support Service and the hope that it will work; that enough firms in Northern Ireland have signed up, as well as enough firms in Great Britain, to make sure that it works. It also includes the small derogations for a brief and limited period. Those are real, live issues that need resolution. It has avoided a hard stop but not provided that resolution.
I thank the Member for her statement. We all recognise the need for continuous support to help business recovery during the pandemic. Those of us who have been around for a while recognise the good work of InterTradeIreland, but what is being done to ensure that there is no overlap in the efforts of InterTradeIreland and Invest NI in supporting businesses?
I thank the Member for his question. He is right about the work that InterTradeIreland has been doing. I draw the House's attention to two particular aspects of InterTradeIreland's work. The E-Merge programme provides consultancy support of £2,500 to help businesses to develop online sales, marketing and e-commerce solutions. From April to June, it supported 140 businesses. The next phase of the programme supported 270 businesses. That made available almost £1 million of support to those businesses. There is also the emergency business solutions programme. Those are the kinds of things that InterTradeIreland is doing. It mainly works with much smaller businesses that are dipping their toe into the export market by doing cross-border exchanges. That is the value of the InterTradeIreland work, whereas Invest NI's work tends to be wider, larger and focused on a more international audience.
What practical steps has the Department taking in conjunction with the Irish Government to maximise the opportunities that the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland has given us?
There is always room for cooperation. However, the Member should remember that, in the search for FDI, the Irish Government are our competitors. That is an important distinction. I do not say that in a political sense; it is a practical, economic reality. The protocol has given us trade that will flow between us and the Republic of Ireland and, indeed, between us and the rest of Europe, but it has given us significant disruptions to trade within the United Kingdom's internal market. I could not and would not support the protocol because I believe the interruption of the United Kingdom's internal market to be wholly wrong. However, I am also a realist, and the House voted to instigate the protocol, and we must ensure that we help businesses in Northern Ireland to navigate this complex scenario as best we can.
I declare an interest as the ex-chief executive of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce. The Minister talked about the success of InterTradeIreland, but the reality for many small and medium enterprises that have been involved with InterTradeIreland is that, in the past, it was seen to be especially bureaucratic and not particularly helpful in their development. Come 1 January, we will be through Brexit, and the protocol will be in place. Will she therefore commit to InterTradeIreland refocusing its present role of supporting the move towards Brexit to one of promoting Northern Ireland businesses, particularly those in the small and medium-sized businesses?
I am sorry to hear that the Member thinks that some of the processes of InterTradeIreland are overly bureaucratic. If he has details of specific instances that I can take up with InterTradeIreland, I will be very happy to do so.
We will all need to leave Brexit behind and move forward to promoting Northern Ireland as a really good place to do business, to live, to work, to bring up a family and to have a really good all-round education. That is what I will be doing in the next year.
I look forward, along with InterTradeIreland, Invest Northern Ireland and, indeed, the wider Executive, to being able to get back out into the wider international sphere to attend some of the fairs, particularly in Dubai and elsewhere in the Middle East, explore new markets for Northern Ireland and try to get that side of Northern Ireland's promotional activity going again.
Minister, I am pleased that you noted the progress made on, and the current position of, North/South collaboration through the Horizon 2020 programme. Given that that is an EU programme, what action are you going to take to make sure that such research cooperation can be continued on a cross-border basis before those whom you supported consign the EU to the scrapheap, along with the funds and support that we have received up until now?
I am not going to bite at the last remark, you will be happy to know.
Research and development and innovation for Northern Ireland firms are really important elements of how we build the economy. I have some brilliant examples of innovation and creativity by Northern Ireland firms, even during the COVID pandemic, such as how they linked up with our universities to produce goods that go to market in the current situation. Innovation and research and development are therefore the way forward. They will build the economy of the future, which is very important.
The United Kingdom would be wise to become a partner in Horizon 2020 and its successor programmes if it can prove that it is value for money for it to do so. Horizon 2020 and its forerunner, FP7, are successful programmes, but they are focused on very large businesses, and that has been one of their downfalls. One of the successes of FP7 was that one of its greatest benefactors was Israel, which, the last time that I looked, was not in the European Union. That kind of research, collaboration and buy-in to the programme is perfectly possible and feasible, and our Government have said that it is something that they would like to do.
One of the other programmes that we are supporting is the US-Ireland R&D Partnership. The Member will probably have noticed the number of COVID-related joint research funding applications that we submitted yesterday. As I said in my statement, COVID knows no barriers, so, in our search for solutions, we should not either.
The Chair of the Economy Committee mentioned the officials who came to the Committee and raised the issue of the low levels of preparedness of businesses and firms, primarily because many of them have been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, and rightly so. Minister, what engagement have you had with counterparts across the UK to ensure that businesses are prepared, particularly for the disastrous east-west trading implications of the protocol?
Those are huge issues for Northern Ireland. Fundamentally, the House should remember, when it thinks about the protocol and the interruption to the UK's internal market that it represents, which our Prime Minister instigated, that GB is Northern Ireland's biggest market by far. We sell more in the GB market than we do in the Republic of Ireland, the rest of Europe and the rest of the world put together, so any interruptions to that business will be very serious and very difficult. The announcements last week did help us with NI to GB trade and also helped us somewhat with tariffs. However, the best thing that can happen is that we have that zero-tariff, zero-quota deal so that we are able to trade freely in all directions; between GB and Northern Ireland, North/South and with the rest of Europe. That is massively important.
I took the opportunity last week to talk to the Northern Ireland Office Minister, Mr Robin Walker, about not just Northern Ireland's centenary — we are looking at promotional work for Northern Ireland in really important trade markets — but the £400 million funding that was announced. We should have a synergy between what the Northern Ireland Office is going to look at with that funding and what the Executive are looking at so that we can reskill and rebuild for the future.
The Minister will be aware that the latest NISRA figures show that more businesses are trading North/South than to anywhere else, including Britain, and that the value of that trade is growing year on year. What discussions has the Minister had with her Dublin counterparts about protecting the supply chain and the intermediary trades that are involved in that trade to ensure that our businesses are not disrupted as a result of Brexit and that that growth area continues to grow?
Of course, the Member is right that more businesses trade North/South, but the largest impact and the largest volume is with GB. We need to remember that. I am hoping that we will be able to grow our markets North/South, east-west and throughout Europe and use the new trade agreements that the UK has signed to explore potential in those markets. I was really encouraged last week when I spoke to the red meat industry; the first exports of beef to America were from Northern Ireland. Those are huge opportunities for Northern Ireland in wider international markets. We must take those as part of the new opportunity that we will have in the next number of years.
The Minister is right: Brexit will lead to North/South and east-west disruption to Northern Ireland's trade. Whatever about the scant detail in the statement, Brexit will, unfortunately, cost jobs and lead to severe disruption. Since the referendum in 2016, and indeed the supply and confidence arrangement in June 2017, the DUP is the sole party in the Assembly that has had the power to force the whole UK into a soft Brexit and a closer relationship between the UK and the European Union, which would have been in the interests of not just Northern Ireland but all businesses and workers in the UK. Since the DUP did not use that power and has left us at the precipice of chaos, would the Economy Minister like to take this opportunity to express regret for the actions of her party? Indeed, would she like to apologise to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland for the situation that we face?
Order. I ask the Minister to resume her seat. I generally allow leeway, and I do not mind back-and-forward; indeed, when I am not in the Chair, I engage in back-and-forward myself and I enjoy a bit of sport, but I remind Members that, when they ask a question, they should, in so far as is possible, try to relate it directly to the content of the statement that the Minister has given to the House. If the Minister wishes to respond, I am happy to let her do so.
Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. I am going to resist getting into too detailed a response, except to say that I thought that Sinn Féin was the only party in the House to rewrite history; I now discover that the SDLP is at it as well. What we need for Northern Ireland going forward is the ease of movement of goods between us and our largest market in GB, and between it and us. That is fundamental to the Northern Ireland economy and to jobs and families in Northern Ireland. That is something that I have worked at since I became a Minister. We had some easement of that last week with the agreements around the protocol, but I would much rather that we did not have to do that at all, that the UK's internal market remained intact and that we could trade as a third country with the EU on that basis.
I thank the Minister for her answers so far. Will she clarify the support that transport firms have been given for transporting goods back and forth between Northern Ireland and the Republic and east-west and west-east to ensure that there is least disruption?
The Member will be aware that transport is a matter for my Executive colleague the Minister for Infrastructure. However, if the Member looks at the things that Invest NI has been doing, she will see that significant work has been done on transport.
I will focus on one area of transport that is very important for Northern Ireland's economy, which is ensuring that Northern Ireland lorries taking goods to the south of England that prefer to use the Dublin to Holyhead route should be free to do so, given that Dublin would also like to use the transition agreement to allow lorries to cross GB for access to the EU. That is a really important issue for Northern Ireland hauliers and firms because around 20% of our goods go to market in GB in that way.
The statement says:
"Ministers asked Sponsor Departments to consider InterTradeIreland's staffing complement".
Does that mean more staff and more cost for InterTradeIreland? Given the perilous state of our trade and the threats to it with our main market, would it not be better now to refocus and create an "InterTradeUK"? Would the Minister work for and support such a body?
The Member knows that to consider something is not to consent to it. That is exactly what the position is on staffing. Those issues will, no doubt, be discussed further down the line, given finance or direction of travel on the matter.
Yes; the Member and I are absolutely in agreement that trade with our biggest market — the internal UK market — is the most valuable thing for Northern Ireland. We must protect it and allow it to grow in future years. If the Member wants to write to me with his proposals for such a body, I will be happy to look at it and take it forward.
That concludes questions on the ministerial statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments. If you are leaving the Chamber, please make sure that you clean your surfaces and what have you. Thank you.