Facing the challenges of the Northern Ireland economy

Economy Minister Nigel Dodds set out his vision for a higher value-added economy that is able to compete effectively within a globalised workforce.

Speaking at the 12th Annual Economic Conference, the Minister took the opportunity to highlight some significant economic developments that have taken place since the first conference was held in 1996.

The Minister said: “The key economic data painted a very different picture than they do today. Unemployment was running at double digit levels of 10% but now it currently stands at 3.4% and the lowest of all UK regions.”

But the Minister went on to say that successes need not be limited to the labour market. He also outlined the significant growth in R&D, especially amongst small and medium sized enterprises and the fact that the local manufacturing sector was more outward-looking with exports increasing by 72% since 1996.

The Minister pointed to the changing nature of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and said: “Invest NI is attracting much higher valued added investments such as Citibank, Liberty IT and yesterday’s investment by mFormation, which should create over 160 new high-value added jobs.”

The Minister then rehearsed some of the economic challenges facing the economy, in particular, the relatively low levels of labour productivity and high levels of economic inactivity.

The Minister said: “The economic challenges have already been the subject of rigorous debate and there is now urgent need to turn quickly to facing them with a clear action plan.”

Mr Dodds then went on to highlight some actions which key stakeholders need to take. Beginning with the role of Government, the Minister outlined that he was already making the argument that the economy should be a top priority for the Executive and he was hopeful that this would be appropriately reflected in the forthcoming Programme for Government.

The Minister then stressed the importance of FDI and the forthcoming US/NI Investment Conference. He also commented on the ongoing Varney review, highlighting that the Executive had already made a robust case for a reduction in the rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland to 12.5%. In this context, he remarked: “We’re still awaiting the outcome of that proposal but, whatever view the Government takes, it must address the real need to promote regional convergence with the UK.”

Turning to the private sector, the Minister added: “The public sector is far from the only, or even key, stakeholder in terms of strengthening the economy. The private sector has also a major role to play.”

In this context, the Minister pointed to the need for businesses to be more outward looking and innovative. Employers were also encouraged to do more ‘on-the-job’ training as the Minister highlighted that with: “around 80% of the current working age population projected to remain in the workforce by 2016, on-the-job training is more critical than ever before.”

The Minister highlighted the need for all stakeholders to work together to secure the shared destiny of a more prosperous, wealth creating private sector. In conclusion the Minister said: “The economic challenges may be great but we shouldn't let them daunt or intimidate us - the rewards will be even greater.”