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Commerce chief urges Northern Ireland Assembly to set up taskforce in bid to boost industry

By John Mulgrew

Published 20/04/2016

Ann McGregor, Chief Executive of NI Chamber of Commerce, Brian Murphy, Partner at BDO, and Maureen O’Reilly, economist
Ann McGregor, Chief Executive of NI Chamber of Commerce, Brian Murphy, Partner at BDO, and Maureen O’Reilly, economist

Manufacturing firms in Northern Ireland are struggling with a fall in sales, profit and employment numbers, according to a survey.

And there were suggestions from one member of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry that a 'taskforce' should be set up by the Assembly in order to boost and improve Northern Ireland's manufacturing sector.

The Chamber's latest survey, alongside BDO, points to less confidence in both the manufacturing and services sectors here.

Around half of the some 300 businesses quizzed also said they don't believe Stormont is doing enough to support the manufacturing sector here.

Meanwhile, exchange rates - partly fuelled by uncertainty heading up to the EU referendum - are a growing concern, with more than double the number of members raising it as an issue, compared to the same period in 2014.

However, manufacturing here saw a more positive performance in the first three months of the year in investment, along with a pick up in export orders.

The services industry had a weak performance across the areas monitored.

That included a drop in domestic orders, export sales, job numbers and cash flow.

Ann McGregor, chief executive of Northern Ireland Chamber said: "There are some signs of growth in the Northern Ireland economy this quarter and it is positive to see an improvement in sales and a slight pick-up in export orders in manufacturing.

"However, the sense of uncertainty is palpable. More key balances weakened than strengthened and fewer businesses in both manufacturing and services took on staff during the last three months."

And a strong and reliable political system is also key to investment confidence, according to BDO's Brian Murphy.

He said in one case, a buyer from overseas had raised concerns about Stormont while finalising a deal to purchase a property here.

Mr Murphy said it had been a "bumpy ride" for Northern Ireland business.

However, he said things had "settled down", with many manufacturing firms surveyed showing increased cash flows - which he said was a strong, positive indicator.

Around two thirds of manufacturers quizzed said they believed bringing in a low rate of corporation tax would bring about a big boost for businesses in Northern Ireland. "The real take-home message from the first quarterly economic survey of 2016 is that the mood of industry is resolute and that Northern Ireland's political establishment must meet its concerns with positive action," Mr Murphy said.

"In particular, we need to see a concerted strategy that focuses on the region's potential as a centre of high-value manufacturing excellence.

"The Northern Ireland Assembly must also take more aggressive steps to address issues around competitiveness and energy costs."

And high energy cost concerns were also reiterated by Ms McGregor.

"Energy costs consistently dominate member concerns, particularly in sectors such as manufacturing," she said.

"Northern Ireland's manufacturing sector has a future but support from the Executive is crucial to give the sector a level playing field with other regions and countries."

A long-awaited Government report published earlier this month pointed the finger at high energy costs which are facing industry here, which it says are "some of the highest in Europe".

Meanwhile, up to 1,000 manufacturing posts are going in Northern Ireland over the next few weeks, as job losses at giants of industry JTI Gallaher and Bombardier take effect.

Around 300 Bombardier workers have left the aerospace giant, while a further 100 people have been accepted for voluntary redundancy.

Belfast Telegraph

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