Posted on Saturday 22 January 2011 by Ulster Business

Arlene Foster

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has a key role to play as the Northern Ireland economy struggles to lift itself out of the recessionary gloom. Ulster Business talked to the Minister to get her assessment of the challenges and opportunities facing the province in 2011

This time a year ago Arlene Foster was filling in as Northern Ireland's First Minister. She describes her few weeks deputising for Peter Robinson while he took time out to deal with personal problems as "quite surreal". One of the heavy hitters in the DUP, Mrs Foster has risen quickly through the political system in the last decade, from being a councillor in Fermanagh while still working as a solicitor, to taking the post of Environment Minister in 2007 and then being given the Enterprise Minister's portfolio in 2008. But from being a well-known politician whose private life was not on display, the temporary elevation to First Minister meant the media suddenly wanted to know critical information such as whether she preferred X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing and the sort of designer shoes she would most like to buy. "I'm very happy to leave it to Peter," she told Ulster Business." I had three weeks that were quite surreal given everything that was happening at the time with the Hillsborough talks (on the devolution of policing and justice). I was glad to assist but I'm very content in this job, which is full of challenges," she said. Certainly Mrs Foster is alive to the difficulties facing the local economy, including the impact of the recent budget cuts on an already growing unemployment register. "Clearly the challenges are in dealing with the public sector situation and having to deal with the fact that we have a neighbouring country that's in great difficulties and that is the source for 30% of our exports. A lot of small companies are concerned, particularly when it comes to cashflow, as they are finding it difficult to get the money in from customers in the Republic of Ireland. That leads on to the access to finance issue, which continues to be a problem, not least in the perception of some small companies," she adds. While she remains sceptical of the banks' repeated claims that they are ‘open for business' and ‘happy to lend to viable businesses' she notes that a recent survey by InterTrade Ireland indicated most small firms hadn't even approached their banks for finance because they expected to be turned down, even though some of them may not have been. The fact that it is difficult to drill down into how much money UK and Irish owned banks are lending in Northern Ireland doesn't help the situation. "There are difficulties in that we don't have any indigenous home grown banks… there is the difficulty that the devolved administration has no direct control in relation to the banks but that won't stop us from trying to use our influence," said the Minister. "We're dealing with realities but we're also dealing with perceptions of banking and the economy in general. That's why I've always said confidence in our economy is a critical issue. People say you can't be unrealistic but I also think you shouldn't talk the economy down either." Mrs Foster is clearly irked by what she perceives as a relentless negativity towards the economic situation by some commentators in the media. "If you have a loss of confidence, as the experience of the Republic of Ireland has shown, it can have a devastating effect on the financial markets. I'm not ignoring the challenges that are out there, they are big ones, but it is important to be realistic. I think sometimes, I would say, that our local media fall on the wrong side of the line," she said. But she says that amid the gloom there are a great many bright spots particularly among Northern Ireland firms who are looking to export markets. "I have seen a lot of our smaller companies looking at global markets for the first time, probably out of necessity. They are looking at markets they wouldn't have before, the likes of China, Brazil, India and China," she said. "It is deeply rewarding when you see the way in which our products are respected around the world. When I was in Hong Kong some buses from Wrightbus were delivered to Kowloon Bus Company and it is a tremendous feeling to see buses made in Ballymena going around the streets of Hong Kong." On such trade missions Foster says Ministers and MLAs from all parties work well together, and she notes that the five main parties were all represented at the successful US/NI conference late last year. The Minister points to the agreement of a four year draft Budget as further evidence the economy is at the centre of the Stormont Executive's thinking. "I think there is a recognition across the political spectrum that when the economy is doing well and we have a strong regional economy, that will help all of our citizens, regardless of where they go to church on a Sunday. I think that is broadly accepted by all the political parties," the Minister said. However, she remains cautious about whether proposals to lower corporation tax will provide the best stimulus. "Undoubtedly lowering the rate of corporation tax would be a huge help to us in relation to inward investment. It would be a step change and would help us with the issue of productivity. There would also be a windfall for indigenous business, it would hopefully allow our business owners to invest more in growth. But I do think in all of the debate we have to recognise that with the benefit there is a cost and it is an immediate cost. Given where we are with the finances I think it would be wrong to ignore that. "We also need to remember that it is not an immediate payback - it will take some time for us to see the beneifts of it. So while in the medium to longer term I think it would be a tremendous tool to have here in Northern Ireland I don't think it is the immediate panacea that some people think it is."


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