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Assembly members' San Diego ‘junket’ row resurfaces

Assembly Members are still considering a fact-finding trip to America — even though their committee may not exist in a few months.

The Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) is facing the axe which will mean the committee scrutinising it will also get the chop.

The committee, chaired by Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea, sparked controversy in the run-up to Christmas by confirming it was planning a visit to California despite the ongoing public spending cuts.

That was before First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said DEL should be dismantled and its functions divided between the Departments for Enterprise and Education, putting the project in even further doubt.

Nonetheless, DEL committee members have continued taking evidence about the trip, which could still take place before the committee is finally wound up.

The committee wants to examine whether the model of San Diego — once labelled America’s ‘bust city’, but transformed into a hugely successful ‘knowledge economy’ — could be adapted for Northern Ireland.

It comes after senior personnel from the San Diego ‘Connect’ team gave a presentation at the Science and Technology Park in Belfast to outline how their area dealt with a similar skills deficit to Northern Ireland.

And asked about the proposed venture, Steve Orr, director of the Connect scheme at the Northern Ireland Science Park, said it could be effective.

Mr Orr said he was aware the future of the committee was “up in the air” but argued he had “absolutely no doubt” Northern Ireland could benefit from a scaled-down version of the San Diego model.

“What Northern Ireland needs to do is to focus on creating indigenous entrepreneurs,” he said.

“Every day I go to meet entrepreneurs from here who are world class... with an ability to solve problems which is world class. What we need to rediscover is the ability to make money from that.”

Mr McCrea, who has already been to San Diego, said: “We are facing severe economic challenges. Unemployment is at its highest since 1997 and youth unemployment is rising at an alarming rate.

“San Diego, with its innovative, collaborative economic model is worth studying. Whether it will work in Northern Ireland or not is of great importance to all of us. In the current financial climate, any expenditure must be fully justified and subject to public scrutiny.”

Background

MLAs are examining whether the province could benefit from the experience of San Diego in California. Once called America’s ‘bust city’, with a loss of some 100,000 jobs, it was transformed over 15-20 years into a hugely successful ‘knowledge economy’. The Northern Ireland Science Park is devising its own version of the San Diego ‘Connect’ project.

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