NI Blog: The new UK industrial strategy — God bless us, everyone?

Ciara Lagan
Ciara Lagan

Ciara Lagan, corporate partner at Tughans in Belfast, writes on the UK government’s new industrial strategy and the challenges ahead.

The Government’s new industrial strategy has just been announced. This is a welcome publication in light of the dip in productivity growth highlighted in the Budget last week. But what difference will it make in the face of Brexit?

The new industrial strategy is heralded by the Government as a “critical part of our plan for a post-Brexit Britain”, The Prime Minister has stressed that the strategy’s objective to enable the delivery of a fairer economy, spread over the whole of the UK, rather than being London-centric. This objective is clearly supported by the accompanying news that Qiagen, the German molecular diagnostics company, will expand its investment in a genomics and diagnostics campus in Manchester, creating up to 800 jobs.

The strategy is focusing on four global challenges – artificial intelligence, clean energy, innovations for an ageing society, and future mobility (such as the driverless cars Philip Hammond championed in the lead up to his first Budget). It is a focus on innovation to improve productivity and, therefore, economic growth.

So what does this mean for Northern Ireland? It is the usual wait and see approach, all too familiar in light of the ongoing Brexit talks. Northern Ireland’s own industrial strategy, which went out to consultation earlier this year, spoke of the same need to encourage innovation. However, it was not as focused as the UK industrial strategy white paper, with a broad brush approach including financial services, agri-food and advanced manufacturing alongside the digital tech and health sciences covered by the UK paper.

But if we are focused, Northern Ireland can certainly play to its strengths in the light of the UK industrial strategy – we have global-leading innovation in these areas, as evidenced by PathXL, the digital pathology company based in Belfast and bought by Philips Electronics last year, and Neurovalens, the wearable health tech company. We need to be vocal about our strengths in order to benefit from the new industrial strategy and any accompanying investment. Of course, just as with Brexit, the push for Northern Ireland investment is made all the harder without local government in place in Northern Ireland.

As I settled down to watch the Muppets Christmas Carol with my children at the weekend, I noticed that the three visiting ghosts drew clear parallels to Northern Ireland business in the light of Brexit and the industrial strategy. The Ghost of Christmas Past, certainly immediately pre-referendum, painted a picture of a province coming out of recession with an opportunity to grow through innovation and exports. On the positive side, the Ghost of Christmas Present has created short term investment opportunities due to the weak sterling. More negatively, the continuing uncertainty of Brexit and lack of local government has contributed to hesitancy, arguably stunting investment (both internal and external) and growth for local businesses.

The Ghost of Christmas Future, depending upon who you listen to, shows visions of hard borders (harking back to the unwanted Christmases of further Past) and no deals with high tariffs or an opportunity to grow without the shackles of the EU. The new UK industrial strategy may not change our Christmas Future but it is an opportunity to boost the potential of Northern Ireland, if we remain focused and shout hard enough. As Marley’s ghost said to Scrooge: “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

NI Blog: The new UK industrial strategy — God bless us, everyone?

  • Ciara Lagan is a corporate partner at Tughans in Belfast. You can view her profile here.
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