The jury is still out — business leaders have reserved judgment on how the Executive has handled Northern Ireland's economy since coming to power a year ago.
An exclusive Goldblatt McGuigan Business Survey for the Belfast Telegraph shows large sections of the business community are warm towards the Executive's performance so far, but even greater numbers have yet to make up their mind.
That suggests business is waiting to see results — and they know what they want to see. Large sections of the business chiefs consulted in the poll want lower taxes, an outcome the Executive has chased in corporation tax negotiations with the Treasury, but now seems unlikely to achieve. However, control over business rates remains in their grasp.
The poll shows business leaders are impressed with the Executive's work in attracting foreign investment and have high hopes for next month's US Investment Conference in particular, but other results suggest the Executive and Finance Minister Peter Robinson still have something to prove.
"While there is no sense of major dissatisfaction emerging from the findings, the optimism that our May 2007 survey highlighted has obviously been tempered," said Michael Clarke, director of management consultancy at Goldblatt McGuigan.
"A year ago 81% of respondents were either Very Confident (23%) or Quite Confident (58%) that the new Assembly would deliver economically and 67% were either Very Confident (14%) or Quite Confident (53%) that the new Assembly would lead to future opportunities for them to develop their businesses."
Asked in the latest survey if the Executive is delivering a stronger economy for Northern Ireland, more business respondents said yes than no — but an even greater number said they are undecided. Thirty-eight per cent said yes, 22% no, and 40% undecided.
Of those who believe the Executive is delivering a stronger economy, almost a third indicated that was because of stability in the political situation. Another 10% cited the capping of industrial rates.
Some of those who don't believe the economy is stronger as a result of devolution said they want to see tax reductions, a shorter process for planning applications, a smaller public sector and "more effective" work
A second question asked about the prospects for business as a result of the Assembly's work over the past year. Almost half — 46% — said they were more confident as a result, far ahead of the 7% who said they were less confident. But again the greatest number, 47%, said there has been no change in their prospects.
Assembly members also got a mixed report on their "business knowledge and understanding". Almost half of the respondents — 47% — said it was average. Their knowledge was rated good or very good by 36% and poor or very poor by 18%.
Finance Minister Peter Robinson — the next First Minister — came out better than the average MLA. Asked about his performance over the past year, 46% of respondents said he has been good or very good. A large section, 40%, rated him average, with 12% calling his work poor or very poor.
"I have no doubt that Peter Robinson, on the eve of taking over the mantle of First Minister, will be pleased with how the business community view his performance," said Mr Clarke.
"As Minister for Finance and Personnel he sought to bring a business-like approach to the delivery of public services. Back in January when he unveiled the Programme for Government and Budget he stressed that the economy will be the Executive's top priority for the next three years, as First Minister the business community will be expecting him to deliver on that promise."
Asked about specific proposals for "the most positive difference to your business" over the next year under the new administration, the largest response — 40% — concerned cuts in corporation tax and business rates.
- The Goldblatt McGuigan Business Survey was conducted by Perceptive Insight Market Research between April 11—13 by telephone interview among a sample of 107 local firms and a cross section of private sector enterprises. Almost half employ between 50 and 100 people, with 35% employing more than 100.