Jonathan Bell: 'Critics who say I'm out of my depth should look at my record'
Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell tells Claire McNeilly of his plans to grow the economy, his delight at his new job, and why he carries his late mother's wedding ring in his wallet.
Q. How daunting is it to take over from Arlene Foster?
A. It's probably impossible. She's been a friend since 1989. At Queen's University, none of us knew our good friend Arlene Kelly would end up as First Minister. Her inheritance? Over the past four years, more jobs than ever have been created here. We have more foreign direct investment than any other part of the UK, and three-quarters of the companies that are investing here have subsequently reinvested. That's massive, and I'll do everything I can to take us forward.
Q. How do you see the DUP under Arlene's leadership? Big changes ahead?
A. It's wonderful that a friend from college is now First Minister. She's definitely the best-placed person to take us forward into the future. She'll bring a unique style to the office. There are big challenges that Arlene has set us all - how to grow the local economy, and how to ensure everyone is with us.
Q. When you started out did you ever envisage a woman leading the DUP?
A. To me, it's entirely natural. I grew up with very strong, powerful, capable female figures. My mother worked full-time, raised three boys and ran a church. I think that Arlene would say she achieved her role on merit, not gender.
Q. Was it the right time for Peter Robinson to retire as DUP leader and First Minister?
A. He felt it was - I'll go along with his judgment. I've known Peter since I was nine. He was an inspirational hero figure for me because he had one of the most foremost strategic, intelligent minds. He once told me privately that he'd retire when he'd achieved three things - getting the party into a position where it was fit for purpose; doing the same with the Assembly, and seeing Northern Ireland in a peaceful, secure, devolved settlement within the UK.
Q. What do you say to detractors who claim you're out of your depth at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment?
A. I don't agree with what they've got to say, but I'll always defend their right to say it. I'll be happy to be judged on my record of job delivery. Nine months into the job, we've delivered 2,600 jobs already. Between now and the end of March, expect hundreds of new jobs announced.
Q. What do you see as your biggest challenge?
A. To grow the Northern Ireland economy. Our Centre for Economic Policy says we can grow the economy by 30,000 jobs over the next 15 years.
Q. And what are the key objectives in your role?
A. Job creation. I've seen, throughout my professional life, that when you give a young person a job, their physical and mental health improves and their proclivities to addiction - chemicals, alcohol, drugs - all change. So the one single game-changer is to create more jobs. We're involved in big negotiations against a target of creating 30,000 new jobs with the change in corporation tax.
Q. How long do you think you will be Enterprise Minister?
A. I'm here as long as Arlene wants me. It's a tremendous privilege - one of the best jobs in government.
Q. Surely a more natural ministry, given your background, would be the Department for Social Development?
A. You don't get a choice - you serve at the discretion of your leader. Had I been given the choice, this is the department that I'd have chosen.
Incidentally, I appeared on websites as the new Health Minster for 31 minutes last year. The BBC hit the wrong button. Paddy Power paid out £1,000 on the basis that the BBC put it up on their website.
Q. Economic inactivity is a massive problem here. A strategy was recently announced to tackle this. Where are we with that?
A. We have reduced economic inactivity from 28% to 27%, but we're still 4% ahead of the rest of the UK. The target was always to give young people the skills to lift themselves out of poverty. We've just finished one particular initiative where we put hundreds of teachers into primary and secondary levels to encourage children who were just at failing point in numeracy and literacy to raise them above because the evidence is telling us that a young person with five good GCSEs lifts themselves out of poverty. We've also put social clauses into contracts with certain companies.
Q. How do you plan to tackle Northern Ireland's manufacturing crisis?
A. We have lost jobs here and I don't want to take away anything from people who have lost their jobs. But Northern Ireland's manufacturing is growing significantly higher than anywhere else in the UK. Our greatest strength is our food and drink products - 75% of which we are exporting around the world. We have a £5bn industry in food and drink alone and we have 100,000 people working in a very extensive supply chain. So while I take on board the difficulties experienced with the loss of the likes of Michelin, JTI Gallaher and Patton, I also look to others that are doing well such as Randox, Schrader Electronics and Moy Park.
In terms of manufacturing there are challenges - we've got to grow the areas that are more successful and help people who are losing their jobs.
We've got a scheme in place to accredit the skills of the people who are losing their jobs at Michelin so their CVs are attractive to other manufacturers.
We also have careers advisers going in to places where people are losing their jobs to provide advice and training with our regional colleges to get them in the position where they can apply for the new jobs that are coming up.
Q. We knew there was a problem with Michelin two years ago. Could your department have done more to save the jobs lost?
A. I asked Michelin management to tell us if there was anything more we could have done. Their response was no. We put £5m of taxpayers money into this particular project. A lot of support went in in terms of training, research and development. I had Invest NI meeting the company on almost a monthly basis.
Interestingly, last year was probably one of Michelin's most successful periods. They raised the issue of energy with us and we put in place a scheme to give them hundreds of thousands of pounds. We tried to deal with the energy costs through combined heating power. They said there was a £7m reduction in the European truck tyre market - the euro worked against them - and there was a flood of Asian tyres coming into the market.
The challenge for Invest NI now is to look at that site, to look at the people with the qualifications that are there. Michelin have said they will keep people in employment until 2018, and that gives us an opportunity to get the workforce the best skills and accreditation they can have, and for us to try and drive the economy forward so that those people will be able to apply for new jobs.
Q. How do you respond to the perception that Northern Ireland is losing its industry backbone and replacing it with call centres?
A. I respond by saying Moy Park, Randox, Schrader, Hutchinson Engineering, Secure Global. I respond by saying we're three times ahead of the UK average in terms of our manufacturing industry. And I respond by saying that we have one-third lower unemployment than the European Union average and the Republic of Ireland average. For the vast majority of the past five years, we've had lower unemployment than any other part of the UK.
Q. What sort of preparation is your department making for the anticipated cut in corporation tax?
A. Invest NI is looking at the skill-set we need to accommodate the new jobs which are coming. We're just back from taking 13 companies across China. Just last week, we led a trade mission to the west coast of the United States. We'll also be going to the Middle East soon.
We go with a three-pronged message: that we've got the talent pool that is needed; the lowest rate of business costs on the British Isles (we're 85% of the business costs of the UK and 95% of ROI); and finally we've got the most competitive rate of corporation tax in the UK. That's a very potent message to bring in terms of cost, in terms of talent and in terms of tax.
Q. Have you got international firms and investors lined up ready to come in when that happens?
A. We are involved in some highly sensitive negotiations in relation to corporation tax. There is significant interest worldwide in Northern Ireland. I would be very hopeful that by the end of March we'll see significant new job announcements.
Q. Ryanair has returned to Northern Ireland calling for the abolition of airport passenger duty. Where do you stand on that?
A. It'd probably cost between £50m and £60m to the block grant, and I can't take that money out of the health or education service to pay for it. I'll work with the UK Government for a reduction in air passenger duty. We are also currently making a strong case to them to remove the vat on tourism on a UK-wide basis.
Q. Do you think Northern Ireland will ever be able to compete with Dublin in terms of air travel?
A. Per head of population, I think we can. Our tourism industry is growing. We're on the back of 117,000 people who came to the Irish Open. We've driven tourism spend in Northern Ireland above £750m. We have a target to grow tourism to a £1bn industry by 2020. There is no reason why we can't compete with the best in the world.
Q. When she had your job, Arlene Foster was instrumental in saving Northern Ireland's only transatlantic flight. Is it a personal priority of yours to attract more long-haul carriers?
A. Yes. There are significant tour operators in discussions about more long-haul flights.
Q. There are rumours of more job cuts at Bombardier. You've met the company's most senior managers, so are you aware of any more losses in the pipeline?
A. We have thrown our weight behind Bombardier. I'm aware there are major challenges and I have been informed that the company has to make percentage reductions, and they're in negotiations with their unions as to how they can achieve those. We will do all in our power to support their core workforce of around 5,000 people. I have been given nothing to indicate more job losses.
Q. Last October, were you in China on behalf of Ulster University and not in your role as Enterprise Minister?
A. I have been awarded two honorary professorships by two universities in China - Hubei and Zheijang. As a result, I fulfil an honorary role for Ulster University as the vice-chair of their Confucius Institute. It's run by the Hanban Institute in London - they covered the costs.
Q. You're a social worker by profession. How long were you on the ground? And what's your abiding memory of the job?
A. I was a social worker for 21 years. The resilience of the young people who overcame some of the most severe trauma imaginable was inspirational. It was particularly difficult because we were sometimes dealing with very young children and babies who had experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect.
Q. How did you become involved in politics?
A. In 1996, former UUP leader David Trimble - a friend since university - asked me to run for a council. In 1997, I was elected to Craigavon Borough Council as an Ulster Unionist, in spite of the fact I'd chaired the DUP at Queen's. In 1998, I said that I couldn't go into government with a terrorist organisation that hadn't decommissioned. Trimble still thought he could get there but, in 2000, when he went into government a second time before the IRA had fully decommissioned, I resigned, sat independently and then went back to the DUP.
Q. Summarise your career to date.
A. I left school, taught English with Unesco in Hungary for five weeks, then went to Queen's to study psychology. I obtained a Master's degree in social work. It was a great career and I was the longest-serving practitioner in the trust for the family and childcare programme.
Q. You're lucky to be here. Tell us about that.
A. I'm the youngest of three, but I wasn't meant to be. My mother had pre-eclampsia and they told her they were going to induce her six to eight weeks prematurely but that I wouldn't survive. It was 1970. Mum said at that time that God gave her tremendous peace that she would have a third child. I was born and kept in the Royal for a number of months. My mum said the hardest thing for her was having to leave me in the hospital.
The next major thing that happened to me was when I took whooping cough when I got out of hospital, when I was three months old. I was taken to the infectious diseases unit at Purdysburn and incubated. They said there was very little chance of survival. My dad said they discharged me with the words: "There is no medical reason why your child recovered."
Q. You keep your late mum's wedding ring in your wallet. Tell us about that.
A. She was the most amazing woman. A little piece of my mum is with me every day - she had such an inspirational role in my life - because when she died in my arms, they gave me her wedding ring. At some stage I will have to give it back to my dad (at this stage Mr Bell breaks down in tears).
Mum went through some horrendous things towards the end of her life. She had vascular disease coupled with heart disease. She had both legs amputated at 78. She was so good to us as children - the most outstanding Christian woman I've ever met.
In March 2014, they told us mum couldn't pull through. Her and dad prayed (Mr Bell breaks down again) that they would get their 50th wedding anniversary in September 2014, and they got that and were able to celebrate with 50 of their closest friends.
Mum died on December 17, 2014. It just so happened that on that particular night the family were all together. We had already sent dad home. Mum just passed away in blissful peace in my arms.