President of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce and deputy CEO of ESB, John Shine explains why the Chamber remains at the heart of the British-Irish debate.
When people hear that the British Irish Chamber of Commerce was only established in 2011 the first reaction is genuine surprise. Most assume that an organisation of such long-term economic relevance has been around for decades.
Our raison d’être was summarised well by David Cameron and Enda Kenny in the Downing Street Joint Statement of March 2012 – “The UK and Ireland both have open and globalised economies and we share a commitment to boosting growth as the cornerstone of economic recovery and job creation … we want to see the €1 billion flow of goods and services every week expand and develop further”.
The Chamber now represents all of the major strands of British-Irish business activity. Our 200 plus member companies have a collective turnover of over €40bn and employ over 100,000 people either side of the Irish Sea and internationally.
FTSE Top 100 British companies own, or partly own, almost 800 businesses in Ireland and trade figures between the two countries are impressive: Ireland imports more goods from Britain than the rest of Europe combined; and in 2012, the UK overtook Belgium to become Ireland’s second largest export market after the US. As of October 2012, there were 25 Irish companies operating on the London Stock Exchange Main Market with a market cap of almost €50bn. Our members, working collectively through policy and sectoral committees, and have helped to highlight the importance of many areas of British-Irish business – whether it is traditional sectors such as food, manufacturing, energy, banking, culture, arts, sports and tourism, the SME sector, or emerging areas such as cleantech, science and technology.
While there is an emphasis within the Chamber on networking – building relationships and indeed friendships – we also have a clear purpose; to ensure that the economic importance of British-Irish business is recognised and fully supported.
At our first annual conference in 2013, Gathering for Action, we outlined to key stakeholders from industry, government, both national and regional, and the media the importance of ensuring that the British-Irish business community is central to the future economic relationships within these islands. The signing at our conference of the Energy MoU between the UK and Irish underpinned that new relationship.
We are engaging and influencing policy-makers, opinion-formers and politicians at the highest level on both sides of the Irish Sea on diverse issues such as British-Irish trade, the growth of the ‘islands economy’ in energy and other sectors, inter-governmental agreements, the need for increased focus on Northern Ireland, and the importance of the UK’s continued membership of the single European market. We have been particularly active with the devolved administrations across the islands. We have been honoured by An Taoiseach attending our events and we have also hosted several senior members of both the British and Irish governments. We work very closely and constructively with UKTI, Enterprise Ireland and IDA and the British and Irish Embassies. This is because we are bringing a vital British-Irish dimension to issues of mutual importance.
Our members include some of the most progressive, innovative and creative companies in the world and we need to tap into this. The Chamber plans to be at the forefront of the debate on a wide range of issues which will strengthen our utility and bolster us in our strategic priorities.
True success comes only when every generation continues to develop the next. With that in mind, the Chamber is reaching out to its members to provide opportunities for development, training and greater participation within the Chamber itself for up-and-coming executives. The Executive Leaders Programme is a very exciting development. Its focus on diversity and the development of younger members both in Britain and Ireland will be uniquely valuable to our member companies.
Malcolm Forbes said: “Anyone who says business people deal in facts, not fiction, has never read old five-year projections!” Well at the risk of being overly-optimistic we believe the Chamber will play an increasingly critical role in the trade, business, policy and politics of out two islands.
Over the next few years, events to mark the Centenary of the Great War, 1916 Rising and other critical events are going to add a special and unique historical backdrop that needs to be embraced in a way that can be positive for British-Irish relations and add fresh momentum to North-South relations.
We have gone from strength to strength since our establishment in 2011. We have doubled our membership in the past year and we aim to have 400 members by 2014, a third of them in Britain. This is ambitious and we have appointed a director for Great Britain, Michael Keaveney, to spearhead our work in London, and in the regions. Key for the Chamber will be to remain at the heart of the British-Irish Debate, to stimulate it and to add value to it – a value that is tangible and visible to our members and our key stakeholders.