Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Jobs: is Stormont doing enough?

The latest rise in the unemployment figures in parts of Northern Ireland is most disturbing.

Some increase was no doubt inevitable in the wake of the credit crunch, but it is shocking to discover from a recent survey that Magherafelt has experienced the biggest increase in unemployment in the United Kingdom.

A Financial Times survey based on the numbers claiming unemployment benefit in the year ending last November also showed that six Northern Ireland towns were among the top 10 UK black spots. Magherafelt recorded an increase of 168% in unemployment, while Cookstown, Dungannon, Banbridge, Ballymoney and Limavady also showed significant increases.

In fact Magherafelt, Cookstown and Dungannon were among the top four of an unemployment league table to which no town wishes to belong. The actual figures in Northern Ireland are not massive, and our unemployment rate of 4.3% is still below the UK and European Union averages. Nevertheless

the figures are grim for those most closely affected. In Magherafelt there was an increase in claimants, from 237 to 633, while in Dungannon, Banbridge, Ballymoney and Limavady the increases averaged around 100%.

Overall, Northern Ireland experienced the biggest monthly rise in dole claimants for 30 years, with the numbers rising to 34,100. Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster blames this on a significant downturn in the construction industry. This has spread to other parts of the economy, which depends so much on house building and a healthy property market.

Northern Ireland is not alone in having to face such worrying unemployment figures, but this is a wake-up call to our Stormont ministers and other MLAs to do something more about it. No doubt they were aware of the implications of the credit crunch, and the fact that Northern Ireland is so dependent on the construction industry and the public sector.

Significantly, the unemployment increases are worst in rural towns, where there is little alternative to the construction industry. So long as the property market remains depressed, the construction business, and its associates, will remain in the doldrums.

The question facing our political and community leaders is whether enough has been done, and is being done, to try to offset such job losses.

One positive approach would be to examine in more detail the capital building programme suggested by the Prime Minister.

This would not only provide employment but it would also help to add an infrastructure of buildings and provisions which would be of longer-term benefit to the community.

Despite the cushion provided by the public sector, one economist has expressed fears that the local economy could shrink by more than 1% this year, with increased redundancies and unemployment.

These are dark days indeed, but there is perhaps one crumb of comfort — the Northern Ireland Assembly is fully in place, at last, and our politicians have a common goal in tackling a crisis which affects people from all backgrounds.

If there was ever a time for concerted and concentrated self-help in Northern Ireland, this is it.

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