Fermanagh native Mairaid McMahon says it is the resilience and determination of small businesses which gives her hope for the future of the Northern Ireland economy.
While local businesses try to chart a course through increasingly uncertain political and economic waters, Mairaid – the Development Manager for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) – notes that “small businesses by definition are resilient. They will adapt and do whatever they can to survive.”
There are currently 7,780 businesses operating in the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area; 80 per cent of which are classified as a small business because they employ fewer than 250 people.
Mairaid commends their positive “solutions focused” approach but warns decision makers that the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the Stormont Assembly and Brexit “is taking its toll.”
The lack of clarity over whether businesses will receive the small business rates relief (SBRR) in 2018-19 is one of the FSB’s biggest concerns. 
Under the SBRR initiative, a total of 4,500 small businesses currently receive a 50 per cent reduction in their rates bills. Businesses are deemed eligible by Land and Property Service, based on their NAV.
“We are very concerned that if a decision isn’t taken soon, we could see the rates bills of 4,500 of our businesses doubled over night. That could wipe some businesses out,” warned Mairaid, who observed that Fermanagh and Omagh District Council was one of the 10 local Councils which increased their district rate this year.
“We are very worried about rates relief. We are trying to lobby in so many different places, but we are not sure who’s going to be taking the decision. Prior to Stormont impasse, the decision on SBRR would have been made much earlier than this because it requires a piece of legislation,” said Mairaid.
The FSB is asking that the SBRR is “at least extended to get us through this year.” 
Mairaid continued: “If you look at England, Wales and Scotland, they are lifting small businesses out of rates completely and there’s a risk that we are taking the completely opposite direction of travel. The previous finance minister had indicated that he wanted to restrict SBRR to retail and hospitality and we are really concerned about that because we don’t think there’s an evidence base to justify that. Retail and hospitality are probably the biggest recipients already and we are happy for that to continue, we just don’t think it should be restricted to those sectors.”
Another concern for local businesses is attempting to plan for when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.
“Whether you are pro or remain, Brexit is a worry,” said Mairaid.
“We’ve almost reached a point where people are a bit talked out on Brexit. They are constantly being told they need to plan, they need to have contingencies in place, they need to look at currency fluctuations and get advice on alternative employment arrangements but that’s all sort of in a vacuum at the moment – it’s very difficult to plan if you don’t know what you are planning for. It’s clear when you listen to the news that there’s no black and white agreement between the government and the EU 27. If they can’t agree at that level, what chance does your small business in rural Fermanagh have of knowing what’s going to happen?”
Mairaid added: “We are in that catch 22 where we are saying: ‘You need to plan’ but we can’t give them any solid advice as to for what.
“Planning for lots of eventualities is all well and good when you’ve got a board with 10 HR people on your team. When you’re a family firm of five people you just don’t have the luxury of those resources. We will continue to call for certainty to be brought to those businesses and for appropriate support to be put in place for the transition phase.”
A recent FSB ‘Taxing Times’ report showed that the average UK small business spends £5,000 and three working weeks every year on tax compliance. 
“When we ask our members what are the barriers to growth, they will tell us that it’s political uncertainty, access to finance, rates and the impact and cost of regulation,” commented Mairaid.
The FSB believes that government should do more to get out of the way of businesses growing and calls for regulatory budgeting, as is the case at Westminster.
“We are not necessarily saying you need to be funding them or paying for things, but if you can reduce the impact of regulation on them, you will free them up to be able to focus on building their business,” she argued.
The latest regulation which businesses must comply with by May 25, 2018 is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), an EU regulation that aims to strengthen and unify data protection for individuals within the European Union.
An FSB survey of its members found that fewer than one in six smaller businesses have a good understanding of how GDPR is likely to affect their operations. Of the mainly larger businesses which had begun working on their GDPR compliance, they are implementing measures such as: getting advice/guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office, changing internal business practices, increasing ICT security, training, allocating responsibility to someone in the business, audit of data, reducing the use of data, changing contracts, altering marketing strategies, buying-in new equipment, external consultancy, shifting data storage to a third-party, taking out insurance, changing or cancelling contracts with third-party digital services provider, deterring from innovating, not entering a new market, or appointing an external monitor.
Mairaid commented: “It is EU regulation around how personal data is processed, stored and managed. The biggest concern for us are the implications if things go wrong. We are working hard to try to get the message out there that this is coming and it’s coming very soon and the penalties are huge if you are caught to be in breach of these new regulations. 
“Businesses need to make sure their processes are in order. It’s a massive worry, it’s another regulation that adds to the cost of doing business and creates additional risk. We are concerned small businesses haven’t got the message.”
Asked if there are any glimmers of hope for the business community, Mairaid – daughter of John and Margaret McMahon, who live in Enniskillen – replied: “I’ve spent all day meeting members [in Fermanagh] and they all give me hope. They are looking for solutions. They don’t come to us with a rant. People are saying: ‘This isn’t working for us and here’s how we could do it differently. Can you help us achieve that?’ Small businesses are very solutions focused which makes it so much easier to work with people with that mindset.”