Is Northern Ireland’s economy now better or worse off than it was in 2000?
The champagne which greeted the new millennium in 2000 has long since gone flat — and a decade on, Northern Ireland finds itself firmly in the grip of a recession.
Heady optimism has now been replaced by hard reality, and while Britain seems to be emerging from the downturn, many of the economic indicators here are still negative.
Ten years ago we were riding on the crest of a wave. The Good Friday Agreement had been signed and sealed, a power-sharing administration was in place at Stormont and the economy was picking up as peace took hold.
House prices were on the rise, new investment was flowing in and there was an air of confidence. But how things were to change.
When the number-crunching is done, though, how does 2010 compare with 2000 from an economic point of view? And how has the Northern Ireland economy changed over the past decade?
According to Richard Ramsey, chief economist with Ulster Bank in Belfast, the key measure of economic prosperity is GVA (gross value added) per head.
While Northern Ireland’s GVA stood at 79.2% of the UK average in 1998, it had fallen to 78.9% in 2008, and the figure for 2009, due out later in December, is not expected to show any improvement.
Mr Ramsey said: “The significance of the failure to close the prosperity gap between Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole over the last decade is that this performance occurred during a public expenditure boom.
“This highlights the fact that maximising public expenditure certainly doesn't maximise economic performance.”
Unemployment is another measuring stick for economic well-being. Back in September 2000, the claimant count stood at 40,700. In October, the total was 58,600, reflecting the impact the slowdown has had on jobs in the province.
In 2007, a time when borrowers were being encouraged to take out mortgages worth up to 11 times their salaries, the average house price in Northern Ireland soared to £217,579.
This was massively up on 2000, when the average stood at £78,100 and the average first-time buyer price was £66,700. The latest figures show that the average has fallen to £150,600, and the typical first-time buyer price £108,400.
Inevitably, inflation has been rising, with the Retail Prices Index (RPI) having increased from 3% year-on-year in September 2000 to 4.5% in October this year.
But there are upsides, one being that despite the ravages of the past couple of years, total employment has increased by just over 9% during the decade.
One area of growth has been the hi-tech sector which was deliberately targeted by Invest NI and the Department of Enterprise as part of the drive to create a “knowledgebased” economy.
The advantage from Government’s point of view is that the jobs, which are created in this sector, are usually filled by graduates and tend to attract above-average salaries.
Key to the expansion of the sector has been the establishment of the Northern Ireland Science Park at Titanic Quarter in Belfast.
The not-for-profit Science Park, which was established in 1999 and opened in 2003, acts as a hub for fledgling businesses and encourages the start-up and incubation of knowledge-based enterprises.
Demand has grown rapidly over the decade and there are now six buildings providing 170,000 square feet and currently accommodating 1,500 workers in 40 companies.
Dr Norman Apsley, the Science Park’s chief executive, said: “Despite the downturn we’re still targeting growth and as our premises are fully occupied at present we’re planning to make a start on a further building next year.
“I do believe there has always been an entrepreneurial gene in people from Northern Ireland and if you look at what is going on here, you can see it is still there.
“We reach out to companies beyond our site through programmes such as Halo, our business angel network which is designed to help new-start companies fill their funding gap.”
Dr Apsley is in no doubt about the economic benefit of the knowledge-based economy. He estimates that enterprises based at the Science Park are paying up to £50m a year in salaries, money which goes back largely into the local economy.
The expansion of the technology sector goes far beyond pure IT and Dr Apsley cites the growth of the film, TV and animation business as just one success story for the Science Park.
Indeed over the past decade, Northern Ireland has become home to a prosperous financial services and business-process outsourcing sector, with operations stretching from Titanic Quarter to many other parts of the province.
In recent years, the manufacturing sector has been hard hit. But companies, which have adapted to a changing market, have survived — and prospered.
One of Northern Ireland’s most famous names — Harland & Wolff — was primarily involved in ship assembly in 2000, but since RoRo ferry Anvil Point was turned out in 2003, no further shipbuilding orders have been received at Queen’s Island.
The future looked uncertain back then but the company has reinvented itself over the past decade and is now a leading manufacturer in the renewables and windfarm sectors.
David McVeigh, sales and marketing manager at H&W Heavy Industries, said the company first looked at opportunities in the renewables market in 1997.
“Competition from the Far East was making the shipbuilding market extremely difficult so we had to consider how best we could deploy the assets we had, such as design and engineering expertise, the building dock and the gantry cranes,” he said.
“We had studied the renewables market and when it began to mature we pitched for business, winning our first contract in 2005. It was a logical progression and the contract we won in September to design and build two platforms for Siemens for an off-shore windfarm off the coast of north Wales involves work of a value and complexity of a shipbuilding contract.
“At present, around 70% of our turnover comes from the renewable sector and one of the benefits we have is our proximity to the locations of proposed windfarms and tidal turbines.”
A case in point was H&W’s involvement in the SeaGen tidal turbine, which began generation in Strangford Lough in 2008. At present the company is completing a floating 70 metre-long turbine which is destined for the Orkneys, where it will be anchored to the seabed.
The result of all this activity is that H&W has moved from loss to profit and the core workforce now stands at 150, with casual employees bringing the number of workers busy at the yard to 500 most of the time.
Mr McVeigh said: “We can never afford to be complacent but the future looks a lot brighter than it did 10 years ago.”
The Northern Ireland economy is down but not out, although things have not worked out precisely in the way a Government think-tank envisaged back in 1999.
The futuristically named Strategy 2010, which was launched by then Economy Minister Adam Ingram in March 1999, was designed to boost the growth of the private sector.
Among a host of targets was an aspiration to narrow the prosperity gap with Britain by raising Northern Ireland’s GVA per head to 90% of the UK average. In the present economic climate this looks hopelessly optimistic. The strategy may have been valid, but as the statistics show, we will have to wait for a few years more before it will be realised.