Executive failing to deliver on the crucial issue of jobs
We need positive, serious and innovative thinking from the Executive to get the economy back on track, says Johnny Andrews
The focus of politics over the last few weeks has been on disorder on the streets, rather than the economy. Yet the protests and violence have taken a toll on shops, restaurants, hotels and bars at the worst possible time.
A growing economy is critical if Northern Ireland is to have a hopeful future. And, just as the Executive is failing to deliver on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI), so it is failing to create the jobs and encourage the enterprise which are critical to a successful society.
The Ulster Bank's monthly surveys show that both the number of manufacturing jobs here and the value of goods we export abroad are falling steadily. In contrast, in Britain, employment is going up and workers are moving from the public to the private sector.
The Executive claims to prioritise creating more private-sector jobs, but the response from the Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, has been complacent.
An unsustainable proportion of jobs here are in the public sector and the Executive's failure to address that imbalance could have serious future consequences. Unlike some members of the Executive, such as Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, NI Conservatives have consistently supported the devolution of powers to lower corporation tax to the Assembly.
But while we believe this is necessary to make us competitive in the long term, there are other things which the Executive can do to improve matters now.
First, there is the issue of shared future. Any future cut in taxes will not be successful unless foreign investors are sure Northern Ireland is a stable society.
The Executive has so far failed to produce its promised CSI strategy. Unless this is produced quickly and contains meaningful targets, in terms of integrated housing, education and sport, then we will keep being weighed down by the divisions of the past.
The Executive is also failing to deploy various tools which it already has at its disposal to get the economy moving. These include creating enterprise zones, providing incentives to exporters, and stimulating research and development through the tax system.
The Executive needs to listen to business and step up efforts to provide skills which companies need. It needs a coherent strategy for improving infrastructure and making our towns and villages attractive places to live and work.
The Chancellor, George Osborne, has provided £132m which can be spent on projects like these, giving our construction industry a boost. It is estimated that £1 of Government spending on infrastructure generates £7 for Northern Ireland.
The Executive has brought forward some spending, which was already in the pipeline for infrastructure, but its efforts to boost construction have been too little, too late. The Executive also needs to be more creative, with more innovative thinking on using PFI funding for new projects.
Most importantly, the funds should be targeted toward schemes which can be started quickly, in order to create jobs and stimulate the economy immediately.
There is no disguising the fact that the economic situation here is not good. During the last two years, the UK as a whole has created 400,000 private sector jobs, while in Northern Ireland we have lost 11,000.
Better news is that things aren't irrecoverable. But we do need a step-change at Executive level, from ministers who are currently hindering business, to a devolved government which understands the importance of private sector jobs and tries to help business create them. We have some great companies. The key is keeping politicians focused on jobs and growth.
We need some positive, serious and innovative thinking from our Executive to get our economy moving and to give people on the streets hope and motivation for the future.