Speaking at Derry’s inaugural hosting of the Northern Ireland Economic Conference, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness outlines the challenges and ambitions of the Executive as it seeks to build on a return to economic growth.
The city of Derry has underwent a lot of change in recent times and is now looking to the future, Martin McGuinness remarks. He points to new infrastructure in the shape of the Peace Bridge and the respective science park and office developments on two former British military sites of Fort George and Ebrington, as indications that the North West region is looking to the future.
Highlighting an “unacceptable” level of lingering unemployment, he says: “We all want an economy working for everyone, an economy that provides good jobs and an economy where people possess the skills to improve their lives. We want an economy which means our children and grandchildren don’t have to board a plane and live on the other side of the world out of necessity, so that they can provide for their families.”
Improving the regional economy does not necessarily mean being the biggest, he adds, instead the goal must be to be “ultra-competitive” and in doing so develop a reputation of being a dynamic, innovative and high-performing leader of small, advanced economies.
Another key element of growth, McGuinness emphasises, is that of resilience. Addressing the serious impact of the global recession on business and people in the North West, causing a significant fall in economic output across the private sector, he says: “The harsh reality for us is that global decisions have local consequences and so, as well as being competitive, we also must learn to be resilient.“
“Although we can’t manage factors beyond our control, we believe that we must use every lever possible to mitigate the consequences and to support people. The local economy has shown positive signs of recovery for some time now and although challenges undoubtedly remain, there has been positive developments. Improvements have been evident in the labour market, where the number of people claiming unemployment benefits has fallen by nearly 30,000 from the February 2013 peak. A 5.6 per cent unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since 2009 and from 2012 the total number of employee jobs has risen by over 40,000. Consumer and business confidence has also increased.”
Pointing to Brexit as a major challenge to recent advances, McGuinness says that the letter issued jointly by himself and First Minister Arlene Foster to Theresa May, outlining the priorities for Northern Ireland in any Brexit negotiations, reinforces a message that Northern Ireland now possesses the ability to face into challenges that lie ahead.
“We have made it clear that the border must not impede the movement of people, goods or services; or become a catalyst for illegal activity,” he states. “Businesses must retain competitiveness and not incur additional cost to tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade. The security of our energy supplies must be protected and we must safeguard the agri-food and fisheries sectors. The significance and potential impact on cross border matters from Brexit are fully recognised, not least in this city.”
He adds that he hopes the All-Island Forum hosted by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, which provided stakeholders an opportunity to engage on these crucial issues, will become a more regular feature.
In the meantime, McGuinness says that the Executive is committed to delivering growth through their mandate, including €1 billion invested in the health service, half a billion invested in the A5 and A6 road schemes and enhancing Northern Ireland’s reputation internationally, amongst other things.
“I want the local economy to continue to rebalance from the public to the private sector,” he explains. “As well as a skilled, educated and talented workforce, key growth sectors of our economy include financial and professional services, ICT, life and health sciences, advanced engineering and agri-food, where we have true world-class capability and an international competitive advantage.”
“We will also work to grow our high value priority sectors to support business, to innovate, internationalise and to deliver quality employment opportunities. We remain open for business, open for investment and committed to the reduced rate of corporation tax, which will drive economic growth and deliver more jobs and higher wages for our people.”
McGuinness points to an enhancement of skills, innovation, enterprise and infrastructure as a means of improving the productivity of the local economy and building on existing investment attractions such as cost competitiveness for office and industrial space, in the likes of Belfast and Derry, when compared to Dublin, Manchester and London.
For the North West he believes that a greater collaboration between business and academia will ensure the region is at the cutting edge of new technologies and processes, with the capacity to exploit global innovation. He says: “That’s why the future of Magee College in this city is of such critical importance along with the very important road infrastructure projects that we are engaging in. The Executive are very conscious that, within the process of the Programme for Government (PfG), there needs to be a step change in developing Magee so that we can take advantages of opportunities that are out there.
“Innovation is central to underpinning growth. Companies who innovate are more productive, they employ more [people] and are more likely to export. We are in the process of developing a new investment strategy which will set out the Executive priorities for large-scale capital investment over the next 10 years. In addition to investment by the Executive, it will reflect our new drive to involve all our key stakeholders and making a difference to people’s lives here.
“It will also reflect the vital contribution of the reform of the local government sector, the regulation utilities, the private sector and will set out a roadmap for future investment in our regional infrastructure and the principles which will guide decisions supporting the new outcome-focussed PfG.”
McGuinness concludes: “Obviously we have challenging times ahead but working together represents the only way forward.”