Stormont stability key to unlocking economic opportunities, says Hilary Benn

Enduring political stability will be key to unlocking economic opportunities offered by Northern Ireland’s dual market access, the shadow secretary of state has said.

Hilary Benn said it was an “extraordinarily exciting time” for the region as he referred to increased interest in the United States around potential investments.

Labour’s Mr Benn was commenting during a visit to Stormont on Monday by a cross-party delegation of Westminster MPs. The parliamentarians have a two-day schedule of meetings in Northern Ireland as part of a fact-finding initiative.

Conservative MP Jerome Mayhew, who is son of former Northern Ireland Secretary the late Sir Patrick Mayhew, also talked up the economic possibilities that he believes the restoration of powersharing will offer up.

Shadow Northern Ireland minister Fleur Anderson was also part of the delegation that was welcomed by Assembly speaker Edwin Poots to Parliament Buildings on Monday.

Brexit barriers on moving goods in the opposite direction within the UK market, from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, was at the heart of a long-running political dispute that saw the DUP boycott powersharing at Stormont for two years.

A deal with the UK Government aimed at reducing some of the red tape associated with the so-called Irish Sea border led to the DUP ending its blockade seven weeks ago, with the ministerial executive being restored thereafter.

Some unionists and loyalists are unhappy with the deal and claim it has done little to remove the barriers on trade between GB and NI.

Mr Benn focused on the dual market aspect of the trading arrangements as he spoke of Northern Ireland’s economic potential on Monday.

“I think this is an extraordinarily exciting time for Northern Ireland, because the people of Northern Ireland needed their government back and everybody has welcomed the fact that the Executive has been restored,” he told the PA news agency.

“I think Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little Pengelly have made a fantastic start as the leadership team, as the (Sinn Fein) First Minister and the (DUP) deputy First Minister.

Hilary Benn during an interview at Parliament Buildings at Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Northern Ireland has so much potential – rich history, its culture, its tourism, its engineering expertise, in financial services, the new sectors of the economy, what a wonderful place to come and invest when you’ve got access both, of course, to the UK market as part of the UK, but also to the EU market.

“I think what the restoration of the Executive has given is a sense of stability and you talk to investors and they will often say to you ‘the most important thing for us is – is the place we’re going to put our money into stable?’

“That’s why having restored the institutions, it’s really important that that endures, because that is the bedrock on which economic success and growth is going to be built.”

Asked for his views on potential reform of the powersharing rules to prevent future collapses of the institutions, Mr Benn insisted the responsibility for stability lay with locally-elected politicians.

“I mean, when we stand for office, our constituents expect us to go to work and do our job, not to say ‘well, actually there’s a reason why we don’t want to participate in the institutions’,” he said.

“I just have this feeling that after all of the ups and downs and the start and stop there has been, this is a particular moment, it seems to me, for the future of Northern Ireland and that the people who can ensure that the institutions endure are the politicians who are working in this place.

“I really hope that that is going to be the case, because it’s the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland, for its economic future and for the functioning of a powersharing democracy here.”

Shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland Hilary Benn (left) alongside Conservative MP Jerome Mayhew at Parliament Buildings (Liam McBurney/PA)

“I came around on a tour and this was an empty building, and I walked around the chamber and it wasn’t serving its purpose,” he said of that previous trip.

“So, it’s fantastic that the chamber is now up and running. We have an executive here in Northern Ireland. It’s very early days, but the signs are promising.”

Mr Mayhew said the delegation wanted to hear from businesses about both the opportunities and potential threats posed by post-Brexit trading arrangements.

“There are opportunities in Northern Ireland. Having a relationship both with the south (of Ireland), but also with the integrated relationship which continues with Great Britain, I think that could be, it has the potential to be, really beneficial for the businesses in Northern Ireland,” he told PA.

“I think stability is absolutely key both for economics but also for politics. But I’m not here to lecture the politicians in Northern Ireland about their institutions. I’m here to support them as they develop the Executive and find out new ways of working together.

“Now is the time of optimism. We’ve been up and running for seven weeks, it’s just the beginning and there’s so much more that can be done here in Northern Ireland, not being imposed upon Northern Ireland, but the people of Northern Ireland, through their elected politicians working here (at Stormont), and creating economic growth and social growth as well.”

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