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'Northern Ireland was once one of the world's economic powerhouses... I believe that we can be once again'

Economy Minister Simon Hamilton writes exclusively for the Belfast Telegraph

Published 05/09/2016

Davy Thompson from Unite speaks to the Press outside Caterpillar
Davy Thompson from Unite speaks to the Press outside Caterpillar
Workers leave the Michelin plant in Ballymena for the last time
Workers leaving JTI in Ballymena after it closed down

The decision by Caterpillar to seek 200-250 redundancies as well as the potential closure of its plant at Monkstown is deeply disappointing.

Above everything else I am mindful of the very direct and personal impact this devastating news will have upon the workers affected and their families as they face an uncertain future.

The full weight of all relevant Government departments and agencies will be deployed, to help find alternative employment or through retraining to equip those affected to compete in the labour market.

Job losses like those at Caterpillar, Bombardier, JTI and Michelin are devastating blows for those affected, but those who use them to peddle a myth that manufacturing in Northern Ireland is in terminal decline are way off the mark.

It's important that when considering the state of manufacturing that we look at the facts and not listen to the ill informed opinions of opposition politicians.

The latest official statistics show that:

• Total manufacturing jobs are now at 80,000 for the first time since 2008;

• Manufacturing sales stand at £18.1bn, up 1.7%;

• Manufacturing exports are up £350m to £6.3bn; and

• Manufacturing output is up 2.4%, outperforming the UK average.

I wouldn't dismiss for a second the seriousness of the recent Caterpillar announcement but to suggest that manufacturing is a sunset sector is simply wrong.

I am proud of the fact that Northern Ireland businesses continue to build upon our incredible industrial heritage.

The fact that one in three of London's red buses are made at Wrightbus in Ballymena.

That 40% of the world's mobile crushing and screening equipment is made in Northern Ireland.

And that over 30% of the world's airline seats are manufactured at B/E Aerospace in Kilkeel.

We should all be praising local companies for the many achievements and successes they are having instead of talking the sector and the economy down.

I hear calls from some for the Executive to introduce a dedicated manufacturing strategy as the seemingly obvious answer to job losses. The Executive does have an Economic Strategy which has policies, initiatives and targets on innovation, growth, exports and skills that all assist manufacturing.

Between 2011 and 2015 the majority of Invest NI's assistance has gone to manufacturing businesses.

Over the last five years the Executive has contributed £270m worth of direct support to manufacturing businesses in Northern Ireland.

If I honestly thought that a document with the title of "a manufacturing strategy" would have any impact on the announcements by firms like Caterpillar, JTI or Michelin, I would have launched it weeks ago.

But the truth is Caterpillar has been suffering a significant and sustained downturn in its business flowing from a collapse in oil prices which has resulted in company revenues dropping by over 20% in five years.

What would a couple of hundred-page documents be able to do to resist the impact of a fall in global commodity prices or a slowdown in China's economy?

Our approach is to focus on sectors, with cross cutting themes. That way we can be much more focused on the needs of similar clusters of companies, but still address the issues that impact on them, whether that be skills, productivity including manufacturing processes, infrastructure such as manufacturing technology and energy, innovation and access to markets.

To date, strategies are in place for Agri-Foods, Aerospace, Health & Life Sciences, Advanced Manufacturing and Advanced Materials, all of which including manufacturing.

This is a much more meaningful, effective and supportive way to address issues in any area of the economy, including manufacturing. Do our opposition parties realise that the call for a Manufacturing Strategy, is a call for a less specific and less effective, higher level document that will not address the needs of very diverse sectors across our economy?

Whilst others carp and criticise, the Executive continues on its clear path of transforming Northern Ireland into a globally competitive economy.

It is by no means an easy task. We have come out of one of the deepest downturns in living memory and are buffeted by international factors beyond our or any government's control.

Yet, in spite of the many challenges we face, Northern Ireland's economy is heading in the right direction. Unemployment is down. Economic inactivity is falling. External visitor numbers are at record levels. Exports and R&D spending are rising. And inward investment is at an historic high.

Northern Ireland was once one of the world's economic powerhouses. I believe that we can be again. Everywhere I go I see our entrepreneurial spirit in action across all sectors of our economy.

It is my job to work with business to put in place the skills, tax system and infrastructure to make Northern Ireland the globally competitive economy we know it can be.

Belfast Telegraph

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