10 December 2015

I find it hard to believe that mega brand Volkswagen has become embroiled in a worldwide scandal regarding the falsifying of emissions data. Building a brand or an image takes years; destroying one can be the work of a few seconds. All of us remember Gerald Ratner’s poorly chosen words that undermined his jewellery retail brand and now VW is going to have to work tirelessly to repair its reputation.

As I write this article I have just finished watching a live video stream from Stormont’s Committee Room 30, where evidence is being delivered which puts serious question marks over the NAMA loan sale to US Equity Fund Cerberus, (named after the mythical three-headed dog that guarded the gates to the underworld). However, more worryingly it again raises doubts over our elected leaders’ abilities to govern for all as opposed to governing for the chosen few. I suspect that we will never get to the bottom of the alleged wrongdoing but the effects of this scandal have the potential to seriously impede our regional recovery.

It has always been challenging to attract foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland but over recent years progress has been made. Although I have frequently railed against the destructive interventionist policies of government departments and their manipulation of rentals within the office market, I have been encouraged by Invest Northern Ireland’s recent public acknowledgement that development is not viable without rental levels of around £18 to £20 per square foot.  However, recovery requires confidence. It requires investors to believe in the opportunities and the business ethics of a region. Investors want to know that their investment is in safe hands and a professional environment. The current scandal alludes to serious misconduct in the sale of the NAMA loan book and undue influence being used by politicians to benefit preferred parties. The current situation seriously undermines confidence in the whole loan book sell off which has worrying ramifications.

We are frequently asked by investors as to whether the political landscape is stable and we saw clear evidence during the “flag protests” of investors walking away from deals because Northern Ireland  was simply not worth the risk. Every time we lurch politically we undermine investor confidence which then takes time to rebuild. Our politicians need to get our house in order, and I make that statement very deliberately. I choose to run a business in Northern Ireland as do many other hard working and honest people. We deserve leadership that does not constantly lead us to the brink and then fudge agreements to retain the status quo for another few months. We need stability, we need investment, we need our promised devolved corporation tax powers to enable businesses to drive growth in the Northern Ireland economy. 

What business does not need is a new explosion of “cane toads” in the form of allegedly self-serving politicians, business cronies and fixers. It is essential that we establish conclusively whether wrongdoing has occurred to enable us to restore faith in Northern Ireland as a place where investors can trust that their money is safe. We cannot afford to simply ignore a difficult issue and hope it goes away; we need transparency and fairness for all.

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