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Editor's Viewpoint: Latest blow shows it is time for action

Published 14/09/2012

Fg Wilson was one of the few shining lights in Northern Ireland's manufacturing sector until yesterday.

News of 760 redundancies, with more forecast when the company moves most of its diesel generator production to China in two years time, is a devastating blow to the local economy which was just beginning to show the first tentative signs of recovery. The company had experienced strong growth in recent decades and will still employ more than 2,000 people when the redundancies are completed, but the current downward trajectory is a concern.

It is also a blow to hopes of reinvigorating the private sector here and establishing a strong mixed economy. The jobs at FG Wilson are skilled and well-paid, just the type Northern Ireland needs, and they will be very difficult to replace both in terms of quality and quantity. The only ray of hope is that the company says it will retain its four factories here and will consider if other work within the parent group, Caterpillar, can be redeployed here.

The redundancies come as a result of falling bottom line figures and the company can hardly be blamed for wanting to cut its losses, even if the remedy is devastating for those who will lose their jobs and for those providers of goods and services who will feel the impact of reduced pay packets in the Belfast, Newtownabbey and Larne areas.

The job losses at FG Wilson throw the spotlight on the Executive and just what plans local politicians have for regenerating the economy. The First Minister has set his face against more devolved powers such as those of the Scottish and Welsh administrations, and therefore the Assembly here has few levers with which to change the economic outlook.

There is one game-changing option - corporation tax, which has the potential to attract high value investment to Northern Ireland. Ironically it would not have prevented the FG Wilson job losses, as they were the result of falling sales and not a desire to retain more profits. Critics of the measure have still to come up with a viable alternative and it is now imperative that the Executive presses ahead with its negotiations with the Treasury on introducing powers to lower corporation tax.

For, sadly, there seems little else innovative in the Executive's plans. Its Programme for Government reads more like a wish list than a carefully thought out, joined up, action plan aimed at rebalancing the economy. And the politicians need to act. The public sector, the biggest part of the local economy, will face an ever-tightening squeeze in the coming years and its ability to sustain, never mind grow, the economy will be reduced. This newspaper today has outlined some of the measures the Executive should introduce such as a building programme, tax and rates relief for retailers, and streamlined planning processes to encourage new investment. We need to replace those jobs already lost to the economy, which has driven our unemployment rate above the UK average, or else our private sector will consist simply of retailing and call centres.

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