Economy Minister Gordon Lyons has claimed the lack of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister following his party’s withdrawal from power-sharing is not inhibiting investment in Northern Ireland.
The DUP MLA and economic development agency Invest NI have opened a conference, the Northern Ireland Showcase, to sell the region as a business location.
Invest NI recently paused its financial support to businesses because it faced losing out under the draft three-year budget proposed by Finance Minister Conor Murphy.
But its interim chief executive Mel Chittock has said a budget settlement for Invest NI has now been reached.
An alliance of business groups today said that the political limbo is having an effect on the economy: “With key political decisions now on hold, businesses here are being put at a competitive disadvantage in comparison to our neighbours in the rest of the UK and Ireland.”
But as he launched the Northern Ireland Showcase, Mr Lyons said it was not deterring investment.
He insisted: “Absolutely not, because what we see very clearly from speaking to investors… is that they are focused on is what we have to offer here, the skills that we have here, the cost-competitive environment, the business-friendly environment.
“That’s what’s attracting people to Northern Ireland, that’s what’s bringing people here and that’s what’s creating jobs."
He said initiatives such as a skills strategy and the department’s 10X Economy economic plan were “addressing the issues that people are actually concerned about”.
However, Mr Lyons said he was hearing “time and time again” from businesses based here that the NI Protocol was causing problems. He said manufacturing businesses were particularly vocal.
The Executive has been suspended since DUP First Minister Paul Givan stepped down from his role at the end of January, with his party citing a lack of progress on improving the protocol.
But Mr Lyons said that despite the problems with the protocol, there was still “much to celebrate” about what Northern Ireland could offer.
The dual market access to Great Britain and the EU was not a recurring theme as a selling point among investors, he said.
“Of course, the dual market access issue has been blighted by the fact that we struggle and have additional frictions getting goods from GB to NI. That’s an issue that I want to see sorted out and that I hope will be sorted out soon.”
The draft budget for the Department for the Economy was constrained by the loss of around £23m in EU funding following Brexit for each year under the proposed three-year term for the budget.
Mr Lyons, whose party campaigned for Brexit, said the loss of EU money was “certainly an issue and the UK government has pledged to bring back that funding and ensure that it is replaced pound for pound”.
He said that the greater problem had been the cuts in the draft budget for DfE, which he claimed meant economic growth would be stifled.
And despite the statement of the NI Business Alliance about the negative impact of the lack of Executive, Mr Lyons said: “I engage with business on a daily basis.
"The businesses that I have been talking to and the representative organisations are actually really pleased with what we’ve been able to bring forward in this department.”
Mr Chittock, the interim CEO of Invest NI, said the agency was drawing investment to NI despite budget restrictions leading it to put the brakes on offers to help companies.
“The current situation is very, very good, very, very strong. We’ve got a very strong pipeline in terms of work in progress. We’ve got 500 projects that we’re currently considering.
"There has been a slight pause in activities over the last number of weeks, simply because the budget position needs to be clarified…
"We now have that. We have good budget settlement. We’re now working towards prioritising those projects and taking them forward.”
But he added: "We will have to do things differently. We are in a slightly more constrained budget environment going forward.
"It would be nice to have three-year budget allocations but we don’t have that at this moment in time.
"We will have to make choices in which projects we support going forward and there’s going to be more focus on projects which have increased collaboration and that have a greater benefit not just for the economy but for citizens in Northern Ireland.”
He said it was “business as usual” for Invest NI despite the lack of an Executive. “The absence of an Executive doesn’t make our life more difficult, it simply means that we business in slightly different way, so it’s not a challenge for us.”
He said the NI Protocol was an advantage for some companies, depending on whether they were trading with Great Britain and the rest of Europe.
He said it was usually not an advantage for US companies which set up here as most were servicing the US market from NI, rather than markets affected by the protocol.
"But I recognise that for some companies based locally, it does provide a few more challenges. We work with the protocol, we promote Northern Ireland as best we can, within the confines of protocol. That’s our role, that’s our job and that’s what we do.”
He said that its future strategy would not mean a focus on overseas investment at the expensive of NI companies, or vice versa.
“What we’re looking at is how do we address different parts of the market. We have a key driver which is about exports, and that’s helping local companies grow their exports and trade successfully overseas.
"We’re not going to be exclusive in terms of FDI and the local market. It is going to be how do we work with all companies to try to move our economy forward.
“But there will be a difference, we will not support some of the projects going forward that perhaps we traditionally may have done in the past.”