Connecting Stormont and business

NIABT Phil Flanagan BT Enniskillen Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust Chair Phil Flanagan talks to Peter Cheney about its work and how businesses can attend Assembly briefings and provide work experience opportunities on fellowships.

Even six years after devolution was restored, the business and political worlds can often operate separately but the Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust seeks to bridge that gap. Phil Flanagan, a Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, was appointed as its Chairman in May for a year-long term of office.

The trust was established, in its current form, by Alliance MLA Seán Neeson in October 2007. Its principal purpose, Flanagan relates, is to “give MLAs a better insight into how local businesses work” and also to improve “the business community’s understanding of how the Assembly is supposed to work” i.e. how policy and legislation are developed and implemented.

As an organisation, it is a non-partisan, non-lobbying charity. The number of businesses involved was initially very small but then increased from 23 in December 2008 to 160 at present, from all the main economic sectors.

The trust also looks outside Northern Ireland by arranging joint trips for MLAs and businesspeople, to visit the Oireachtas, the Westminster Parliament and the European Parliament in Brussels. These visits are “a good opportunity to engage with each other and with other parliamentarians” and also to gain an insight into the economic challenges that neighbouring countries are facing.

In Dublin, the Houses of the Oireachtas have been impressed with the NIABT’s work and are looking at how they can set up a similar way to engage with business.

Flanagan also highlights the trust’s monthly briefings, which are open to all businesspeople. The next one, on 10 September in the Long Gallery, will involve an economic outlook from new Finance Minister Simon Hamilton.

The briefings were initially held at breakfast time but this was “off-putting for people travelling for a long distance.” He hopes that the early evening format will result in a larger attendance: “These briefings are a great way for MLAs and businesspeople to work with each other and also to learn what is being done at an Executive level.”

Out and about

Fellowships with businesses add a more practical side to the trust’s work. To date, Flanagan has taken part in three fellowships i.e. with John Gilliand’s biomass firm Rural Generation, BT and P Clarke & Sons’ quarry in Lisnaskea.

With Rural Generation, Flanagan was shown how their wood fuelled boilers provide most of the heat for the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise campus in Enniskillen. He also paid a visit to its head office in Derry.

“It gave me an insight into the opportunities that were there within the renewable energy sector and what some local businesses were doing,” he recalls. Businesspeople can also raise the problems that they are facing directly with MLAs, while MLAs can explain what they can do as political representatives.

On the visit to Clarkes’ quarry, the company explained the challenges that it was facing and also how to manage the environment and responded to the views of local people. Gordon Best, the Northern Ireland Director of the Quarry Products Association, also briefed Flanagan on the wider sector’s role within the economy. The BT fellowship gave Flanagan an insight into the challenges facing its local office in Enniskillen.

During a sitting week, Flanagan typically spends four days at Stormont and one in the constituency. He wants to overcome that “level of detachment from the local community and the people that you’re there to represent” and sees the fellowships as a good way of doing that.

Before entering politics, Flanagan worked in the Carlton Hotel in Belleek and then as a manager in Carphone Warehouse and as the owner of his own rural broadband business. He has therefore seen how a small business and a large multi-national operate.

“I genuinely have an interest in hearing the views of people who are in business, who are trying to run a business and trying to employ people and to ensure a bit of prosperity,” he comments.

Over this year, the trust wants to continue to organise “useful, informative and relevant” briefings to inform its members. Increasingly, this work will tie in with the committee structure in the Assembly and therefore give committees a chance to connect with businesses.

The Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, for example, has already used an NIABT briefing to publicise its report into the potential of creative industries in Northern Ireland. The report, launched in February this year, calls for clear branding for the sector, practical joined-up government between the relevant departments and a ‘one-stop-shop’ for advice, guidance and support.

“I’d be keen, from a personal level, to increase the level of engagement between MLAs and businesses and [try] to get MLAs out of Parliament Buildings, out to visit businesses,” he remarks. Getting businesses from the west of the Bann more involved in the trust is a particular challenge. At present, only one member comes from Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

“I still think there is a bit of a deficit amongst most of us, as MLAs, as to how a business actually operates,” he acknowledges. Flanagan sees a need for both a flow of information coming into the Assembly from business and a willingness of MLAs to engage.

In conclusion, Flanagan is encouraging businesses to explore the possibility of joining the trust. If people are not sure about joining at the outset, they are still welcome to come and attend the briefings which are open to everyone.

How to get involved

The trust website (www.niabt.org) includes application forms and information on upcoming briefings. The membership fee is £50 for businesses with a turnover of under £2 million. Fellowships can be organised by contacting the trust’s office: Room 135, Parliament Buildings, Stormont Estate, Belfast, BT4 3XX.

Tel: 028 9052 1195 / 028 9041 8365

Email: info@niabt.org

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