Belfast Letter: New finance minister has full inbox

Arlene Foster’s successor will have to address the chief concerns of business community

Former finance minister Arlene Foster who becomes Northern Ireland’s First Minister on Monday January 11th. Photograph: Eric Luke/Irish Times

Former finance minister Arlene Foster who becomes Northern Ireland’s First Minister on Monday January 11th. Photograph: Eric Luke/Irish Times

 

The new year heralds the arrival of yet another new finance minister for Northern Ireland, the second in less than nine months. Their first real job will be to formally bring the budget for 2016-17 to the Assembly to be voted on later this month.

The new minister is very likely to be unveiled next Monday when the first full meeting of the Assembly takes place after the Christmas recess and the current Finance Minister, Arlene Foster, officially becomes Northern Ireland’s new First Minister.

The next finance minister has Foster to thank for successfully securing agreement on the one-year budget which will make their job considerably easier than hers was when she took up the portfolio last May.

That is not to say that anyone coming into the portfolio should not be, at best, slightly apprehensive about taking control of the spending reins, even with the “additional budget flexibilities” which have been promised for early 2016.

Although the business community has applauded the fact that politicians managed to agree on a budget at all, there are some concerns that, in practice, it will not address many of their chief concerns, particularly around investing in higher education and skills.

Education and science

It wants to see new investment in colleges, universities and funding for science, technology, engineering and maths programmes to help alleviate current recruitment pressures in key sectors including IT, advanced engineering and financial services.

Existing inward investors are already expressing frustration about finding new, local talent to employ and have been increasingly looking elsewhere to expand their workforce.

Inward investors

Stephen McCully, president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, which has more than 1,200 business members, says its members are more optimistic about what 2016 can deliver.

Political agreements are now in place which should create the right foundations for “sustainable economy growth” this year.

“NI Chamber is confidently optimistic as we enter 2016. Our series of quarterly economic surveys in 2015 showed that our members had a determination to grow and succeed but were frustrated by the stalled political process,” he said. “These conditions will be better in 2016 and that allows for a better context for growth.”

Skills shortage

McCully said the lack of progress in delivering key infrastructure projects – such as the North-South Interconnector in electricity and improvements to the strategic road networks – will also hold Northern Ireland back if they cannot be progressed.

There is unlikely to be much of a honeymoon period for either the North’s new First Minister or finance minister when they take up their new jobs next week.

But there are high expectations that they will help grow the economy in 2016 and to support local businesses and inward investors that want to create jobs and employment.

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