Gordon Lyons is the third minister to hold the post in as many weeks, and he’s now heading up the Executive department tasked with getting business going again. In a wide-ranging interview, he speaks to John Mulgrew about backing his party leader’s threat of collapsing the Assembly over the NI Protocol which he says most businesses are opposed to, why there’s no conversation over another ‘circuit breaker’, the “horrendous impact” it would have on business, the “potential” of devolving corporation tax, bringing in compulsory GCSEs in IT, and the hundreds of jobs to be announced in 2021
Gordon Lyons is firmly behind his party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, and his view that if elements of the NI Protocol don’t go, it will step down from the Executive.
In the post since July, he’s the third DUP minister to hold the office within a three week period – Paul Frew replacing Diane Dodds, before another party leader battle which then saw Mr Lyons appointed.
The minister also knows he’s only got a few months to put his stamp on the department, with the upcoming Assembly elections throwing everything up in the air once again.
He says there has been no conversation over another ‘circuit breaker’ ahead of Christmas, and that another lockdown would be “horrendous” for business.
And he says, as furlough is brought to an end, that there should now be sector-specific for industries which are still unable to fully reopen, or which continue to struggle.
On the hot potato of the NI Protocol, and speaking before the EU proposed changes to it, Mr Lyons believes businesses are overwhelmingly against it. However, some major firms and business groups have already voiced support for it.
“I’m not coming across anybody who is underestimating the issues which the protocol is causing,” he told Ulster Business.
“I have spoken to more than 100 businesses since I’ve come in to post. I can tell you, the protocol is a real and pressing issue for many people.
“This isn’t a unionist or a nationalist issue. I have had businesses from all sides of the community in Northern Ireland expressing the concerns they are having, in particular, in getting goods into NI from GB.”
His latest focus is on the roll-out of the high street voucher scheme here. He says, despite criticism from some political circles over the speed in which it’s been brought forward, now is the right time.
“I am pleased… just because we announced it more than a year ago that doesn’t mean it was the right time to do it,” he says.
“Those who are saying we should have done it sooner are either saying that we should have done it during lockdown… or during the summer when there was already pent up demand being released. It didn’t make sense. This is the best time to do it… we are convinced that we have got it right with the lull, post-summer.
“In regards to the Christmas issue, I think this is also a good time to do it because one of objectives of the scheme, as well is to injecting cash in to peoples’ pockets and the economy, is also to change behaviours, and reorientate spend away from online shopping, back on to the high street again.”
Political stability remains a key element in business stability here, and Northern Ireland’s ability to attract foreign direct investment.
Asked whether he supports his party leader’s calls to to bring down Stormont within weeks if the NI Protocol is not removed or amended, he said: “Yes I do.”
“We have had announcements which have created almost 4,000 jobs here since last year. People are coming here and people are investing here, first and foremost because of the skills of our people and the cost of doing business.
“That is the certainty which we can give people, and it’s what they are interested in. We have been hugely successful in doing that and there are many more announcements to come in the coming weeks.
“Covid has been the biggest issue and disrupter over the course of the last 18 months, but in the long term, of course we want to make sure that we have political stability as well. It’s my view that it’s the protocol which is causing that political instability. That needs to be dealt with in the short term, rather than allowing us to go on for months and months, which is why we are taking the action we are taking as a party.
“What we are saying is we need to get this sorted in the short term. We are not collapsing the institutions, what we are doing is to take this to the people so they can have their say.”
And while businesses are now awaiting a further easing of restrictions, Mr Lyons says while “there may have been some speculation” over another short-term ‘circuit breaker’ being brought in in a bid to curb coronavirus numbers, he says “there hasn’t been any conversation within the media”.
“We have been fully focused on the full and irreversible reopening of the economy again,” he says.
“That is not something any of us want to contemplate again because it would be horrendous for business. It would really be a backward step.”
On the ending of furlough, the minister says bringing forward sector-specific support would be an option for the UK Government.
“I know concerns in some sectors in particular within tourism and aerospace, that there are concerns there and it would be helpful to have a sector-specific extension of furlough for those sectors which haven’t been able to fully reopen,” he said.
And while it feels like something resigned to the history books, at least for now, Mr Lyons says devolving and lowering Northern Ireland’s corporation tax “still has the potential to be a useful tool”.
The landscape has changed considerably, though, amid both plans for a global minimum duty, and the UK increasing its rate to 25% by 2023 – further increasing the revenue shortfall for Stormont.
“It still has the potential to be a useful tool,” he says. “The context has changed as a result of the EU exit, and Covid. We are in a different place to where we were in 2010 in terms of the tax rates and the differential between NI and the Republic.”
The minister is keen to flag the some 4,000 jobs which have been announced this year in terms of local and foreign direct investment.
“The political situation isn’t raised as much as the cost of doing business here, and the talent of our people is,” he says. “We can sometimes over-egg those other issues. Without a doubt, that’s what I’m getting time and time again.”
On that jobs front, he says Northern Ireland is set for additional announcements in the four figures by the end of the year.
“I would say more than hundreds (of jobs being announced this year),” he says. “It’s very positive what we have coming through here. Part of that is a few announcements have been delayed as a result of some of the restrictions which have been in place.”
Speaking about the public sector estate, and whether there are now too many buildings with too few people in them, he said: “… from our own point of view, yes, if we can have less space and need less space, then that’s ultimately a good thing.”
The minister has also revealed, for the first time, that he’d like to see a compulsory GCSE introduced here in IT, given the increasing importance of digital skills.
“It’s the first time I have said this publicly, but I want to look at making sure that we all have the opportunity to have ICT in our schools, and to make it compulsory,” he says.
“If you look at the other economies in the world which we are competing against, in many of those place it is there already.
“I think a GCSE, making that compulsory, would be a good thing because we are going to need these skills. Why do we tell our young people that they need English? Because it’s core. It’s the same for science and maths. We have to understand that this is central to the skills which we are going to need in the future.”