Stormont rejects manufacturing strategy to re-industrialise Northern Ireland
Calls for a manufacturing strategy to re-industrialise Northern Ireland have been rejected by the Stormont Assembly.
MLAs turned down the motion following the first official Opposition debate at Parliament Buildings since 1972.
Economy Minister Simon Hamilton said: "I am not convinced that a stand-alone manufacturing strategy is the right thing for Northern Ireland."
The sector has been badly hit in recent years with the closure of some of the region's biggest employers such as the JTI Gallaher cigarette factory and Michelin tyre plant in Co Antrim as well as the loss of hundreds of jobs at Bombardier aerospace in Belfast and Seagate in Londonderry.
But Mr Hamilton said the perception the industry was in the "doldrums" did not fit with analysis of performance adding: "Whether it is jobs, sales, exports or output, our manufacturing sector is performing very well."
Manufacturing should be included in an overall economic strategy, he said.
"In essence, for those looking for a strategy, we already have one," said the DUP Minister.
"It is called the economic strategy, and it will be refreshed and refocused in line with the new Programme for Government."
Earlier, in his maiden speech South Antrim Ulster Unionist Stephen Aiken, claimed manufacturing generates annual sales approaching £20 billion, employs 85,000 and supports 214,000 in the wider supply chain.
Tens of thousands more jobs could be created if strategic policies were put in place, he noted in his maiden speech.
The former Royal Navy commander, said his motion for a specific strategy had the backing of business leaders and trade unions.
" W e need to change the mindset: manufacturing is not in a sunset period," he said.
"Our 3,820 manufacturers, at any scale, can drive our future.
"Achieving a 20% manufacturing sector and generating an additional 100,000 jobs is achievable, but only if we put it at the centre of making Northern Ireland work.
"For that, we need vision, strategy and willingness from us all."
Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, chairman of the committee for the economy, said serious consideration should be given before any specific policies were developed.
He said: " It would be unwise to engage in a hastily developed strategy simply to respond to the large-scale job losses that we have had."
Meanwhile, SDLP MLA Sinead Bradly, who was also speaking for the first time, said the debate had the potential to represent a pivotal moment in the future direction of manufacturing.
She said: "At a time when Europe openly seeks to re-industrialise, members have yet to grasp the significance of needing a specific manufacturing strategy.
"I find it regrettable that, through my maiden speech, I have to try to convince others that a real need for a dedicated manufacturing strategy exists. I would have much preferred my contribution to have focused on the ambitions of that strategy."
An amendment to include the development of the manufacturing sector as part of the Executive's new economic strategy was tabled by DUP MLA Gordon Lyons.
He said: "We are focusing on a new and refocused economic strategy to deliver growth for the whole economy. Manufacturing should be at the centre of that, and we hope that it will be."
Afterwards, Davy Thompson, regional coordinator with the union Unite said the Assembly had missed an opportunity.
He said: "The decision to vote down proposals for a dedicated, stand-alone strategy for its future development casts a shadow over the sector at a time when unions and employers are collaborating closely to secure investment and growth.
"Unite believes only a dedicated Manufacturing strategy will bring the focus and oversight necessary to ensure real action to meet these challenges and secure a positive future. Having manufacturing only one element of an economic strategy risks facilitating continued inaction and the threat of further job-losses in this sector."