Posted on Tuesday 23 February 2016 by Ulster Business

Economy first first minister

First Minister Arlene Foster and Ulster Business editor David Elliott

By David Elliott

If there is one part of the community which raised a metaphorical high five when Arlene Foster was announced as the new First Minister it was those in business.

It was they who witnessed first-hand the no-holds-barred way she handled her role while the Minister of Enterprise Trade and Investment, showing not only a thorough understanding of the brief but also a desire to get under the skin of companies and to sell the benefits of doing business in Northern Ireland at every available opportunity.

If there is a factory floor or an office building in Northern Ireland which she hasn’t hosted an Arlene visit or if there’s an overseas investor which she hasn’t given the NIHS (Northern Ireland Hard Sell) to, then it’s a rare thing.

You could say it’s by coincidence but the facts show that under her watch, a record number of jobs and inward investment was won for Northern Ireland, despite the fact the economy was going through one of the worst downturns in its history.

That’s all well and good, but Mrs Foster’s brief has changed since she’s stepped up to the First Minister plate, and she’s now got a more wide-ranging to-do list to tick off.

Does that mean the business world will get shoved aside in the coming years?

The answer - as Ulster Business was about to find out having wangled a few minutes in front of the First Minister - would appear to be a qualified no.

“The economy will remain my primary focus,” she said in her new office at Parliament Buildings. “I’ve seen what economic development can bring to Northern Ireland and it makes sense to continue focusing on it. If you can grow the economy and create jobs it helps massively in terms of social cohesion.

“When people feel have a job and they’re doing well then everything slots into place. My message  is that we will to look at economic growth as the key driver for Northern Ireland.”

That will be music to the ears of all free-market enthusiasts out there and will be seen as a job well done given unemployment figures are back down to the levels witnessed before the credit crunch took hold

However, the more eagle-eyed economists may be wondering if jobs are enough to keep the economy here on an upward trajectory?

Wouldn’t productivity, the one facet of the Northern Ireland economy which has failed to keep up with the recovery (still down 8% on pre recessionary levels, according to PwC), be a better area to focus on.

It’s all part of the wider plan, the First Minister said.

“Shortly after the first Program for Government began the recession arrived so the focus was on trying to provide jobs for everyone. Despite the fact we went through a very bad downturn, we still managed to put in place policies which helped bring more jobs to Northern Ireland than ever before.

“That was the right thing to do, to implement the jobs fund, to look at business rating, industrial de-rating and those sorts of policies to help out our indigenous businesses.

“Now we’re back and looking to drive up productivity and the standard of living and we do that by attracting in companies and inward investment. Of course the rise in the national living wage will help with that as well.”

The latter point may help to boost overall living standards but its swift implementation is a worry for industries in Northern Ireland which employ large numbers of workers at the lower end of the pay scale such as hospitality and domiciliary care firms.

Mrs Foster has sympathy for them.

“When the chancellor introduced the movee to the living wage he didn’t take into account it would impact those sectors quite as hard. I took evidence from some of them when I was finance minister and could feed that through to the chancellor.

“We’re going to have to look at how we’re going to fund some of them, particularly in social care. What you could have got for £1m in social care you won’t now becuase some of it’s going to have to go on wages. That’s going to be a real challenge for us.”

Meanwhile, the interest of potential overseas investors is expected to be piqued in 2018 when corporation tax is devolved from Westminster to Stormont and dropped like a stone to 12.5% from the current rate of 21%.

Are we doing enough to make sure everything from the workforce to the commercial property market and all the other vital parts needed to cope with an influx of investment are in place by then?

The First Minister pointed to work being carried out by both the Department of Employment and Learning and the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment on the Skills Barometer, a model which helps identify the skills industry needs and gives universities, colleges and schools the insight to plan their courses.

And while acknowledging government needs to take the lead in preparing for the tax cut, she said others need to lend a hand.

“It’s not just government which needs to step up to the plate. We need to look at this in a collaborative way and see how universities, businesses and industry can help us get there.”

When it comes to getting potential investors to come here, Mrs Foster isn’t going to stop travelling.

She’s heading to the east and west coasts of the US in July to “expand my usual story around the quality of our young people, our proximity to Europe, but also adding in our tax story which is hugely important.”

Really, it should come as no surprise that economic development is still front and centre of the First Minister’s agenda, but the reiteration of the fact does help to reassure the business community.

Having survived one of the worst recessions in history, the Northern Ireland economy is about to be given a leg up in the form of a tax cut which will, together with a number of other important factors, put us head and shoulders above many other regions when it comes to the scramble for inward investment.

But to take full advantage of the tax cut, strong leadership is essential.

Arlene Foster seems well up for the challenge. 

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