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It's time to manufacture a new upturn in Northern Ireland exports

By Margaret Canning

A day in which it celebrated its best ever half-year results for job promotion - nearly 11,000 new jobs compared to nearly 3,000 in the same period a year earlier - was also bittersweet for Invest NI.

While it was celebrating a nimble performance in developing new specialisms for the workforce, such as legal services, and a change in strategy towards using research and development more than straightforward financial assistance, it also had to confess to coming desperately far below targets for manufacturing exports.

In 2010 the Programme for Government, hammered out at a time of pessimism in the economy, set a target of 20% growth in manufacturing exports. Invest NI has manufacturing exports within its remit, but yesterday had to come clean to helping achieve just a 6% increase.

While it has already surpassed the 25,000 'jobs promoted' target in the PfG, the agency says there is a litany of reasons beyond its control why it hasn't done better on manufacturing.

There is stagnation in the eurozone, a slowdown in China and restrictions on sales to Russia which could not possibly have been foreseen at the time of the PfG - and which are hitting our dairy firms, from Dale Farm to smaller creameries.

But Invest NI CEO Alastair Hamilton also pointed out that HMRC's export figures do not take into account our services exports, which include many of our brightest and best working for firms like First Derivatives, which sells consultancy services around the world.

Sales to Great Britain are also not included in the export figures, but instead are treated as 'external sales'.

Mr Hamilton said the figures do not tell the story of some of our big successes in construction, who, after a long period of relying on the Republic to buy their goods and services, had instead turned their attentions to Great Britain.

Even though they can maintain their sales success by working and sending goods to Britain, those achievements could not be caught in the export figures.

While it's 10 out of 10 for job creation in Invest NI's half-term report, it's 'could do better' for manufacturing - but let's hope conditions, and even HMRC figures, can finally change for all everyone's benefit.

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