Foster's handling of slowdown over first year faces scrutiny


BELFAST BRIEFING:Businesses in Northern Ireland are going bust faster than at any other period in the last decade, writes FRANCESS McDONNELL.

THE NORTHERN Ireland Minister Arlene Foster is not someone who, as they say in the North, has her troubles to seek.

Today she celebrates her first anniversary as the Minister with responsibility for enterprise, trade and investment – and what a year it has been for her.

In the last 12 months, unemployment has soared to a high of 49,000 people. The rate of joblessness has accelerated from 4.6 per cent to the current rate of 6.1 per cent.

According to recent figures from advisers PricewaterhouseCoopers, businesses are currently going bust in Northern Ireland at a faster pace than at any other period over the last decade.

It is not, of course, Arlene Foster’s fault that she was handed the poison chalice of Economy Minister just as the global economy nosedived into a deep recession.

There is nothing the Minister or her officials could have done to influence global macroeconomic issues.

But there are a lot of questions about how well Foster and her team have managed the economic slowdown on home turf.

Has the Minister and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) shown leadership and a clear understanding of the issues facing local business and foreign direct investors?

Well, she is about to find out just what the Northern Ireland business community and its key stakeholders think of the job she and her officials have been doing.

Last December, Foster commissioned an independent review of economic policy in Northern Ireland.

It was a brave move for the Minister, and one she may yet regret making.

Prof Richard Barnett, vice chancellor of the University of Ulster – a man not inclined to resist a challenge or a showdown – is heading up the review.

Its official aim is to “ensure that DETI/Invest NI policies, programmes and resources are targeted to help achieve the stretching productivity goal contained in the Programme for Government”.

In reality, what it seeks to establish is how well DETI and Invest NI are doing the job that they have been tasked with.

Any day now, Prof Barnett is going to deliver the results of the review to Foster, and it is not going to make light holiday reading for her.

Early indications show that the opportunity to let the Minister know exactly what they think of the DETI and Invest NI has been eagerly embraced by the local business community. A total of 45 organisations and individuals have submitted hundreds of pages of written responses to Prof Barnett and his independent panel undertaking the review.

There is a common theme running through most of these submissions and it is not a happy one, as illustrated by Terry Cross.

Cross is the chairman of west Belfast-based Delta Print Packaging, one of the North’s top exporters and a major employer, and his view of current economy policy is pretty scathing.

Cross believes that economic development agencies were more helpful in the past, but now apply “too rigid an interpretation of state rules for aid to industry”.

At the same time, he believes that agencies are “prepared to throw away the same rules for “safe”, “easy” investments, ie Bombardier, Du Pont, British Telecom, Seagate, etc, to the detriment of “ambitious indigenous companies and individuals”.

Cross states that certain agencies were “more concerned about numbers employed rather than the financial health of companies”.

He goes on to voice what many companies see as the “massive level of bureaucracy, time, cost, hassle and the application of civil service logic to the risk and reward scenario faced by business daily”.

Cross would like to see the DETI and Invest NI “refocus state aid proactively in favour of indigenous manufacturing, while being realistic about ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ inward investment”.

According to Cross, one of the key issues for the Northern Ireland economy is the role its politicians must play on who should “have authority to intervene on behalf of businesses in their constituencies”.

He told Prof Barnett: “We’re all in this together, and it is co-operation rather than infighting which will lead us to a new prosperity which will copper-fasten the peace”.

The level of criticism contained in the submissions to Prof Barnett in relation to how current economic policy works or rather does not work is not going to make easy reading for Foster.

This is so whether it comes from the likes of the Alliance Party, which states it is “highly unhappy with the performance of Invest NI with regard to current programmes”, or from the highly respected Ulster Bank economist Richard Ramsey, who asserts that, in his opinion: “DETI’s approach to economic development has been reactive to developments rather than setting the agenda”.

Overall, the message from the bottom up appears to be that someone needs to do some serious soul-searching about economic policy in Northern Ireland.

That someone should be the North’s Economy Minister, Arlene Foster.

Perhaps when Foster reflects on her first year in the job today, she might take on board what people like Cross are telling her about the real economy in Northern Ireland.

It might not be a cause for celebration, but a state of affairs that is worth marking.

A recent Belfast Briefingreferred to Trevor Birney. Mr Birney is managing director of the Belfast-based television production company Below the Radar, recently acquired by Ten Alps plc, which intends to explore public service broadcasting opportunities in the North.