Ulster Business editor John Mulgrew sits down with Economy Minister Diane Dodds to discuss representing business after backing Brexit, dealing with a ‘big brief’, corporation tax remaining on the agenda and wading through the in-tray
“The argument has kind of passed its sell-by date”, newly appointed Economy Minister Diane Dodds tells me somewhat dismissively when asked if she can confidently represent the business community after her staunch position on Brexit flew in the face of the wishes of the bulk of NI’s private sector.
“I think that argument has gone. For Northern Ireland, Brexit is a fact,” the Minister tells me during a sit down at her Netherleigh House office, close to Stormont, outside Belfast.
“I think there is a general agreement in the Assembly and Executive – I haven’t found any voices of demure – and for all of us it’s about what is in the best interests of Northern Ireland in the situation we find ourselves in… I want to work with businesses in NI and their representative bodies.”
And turning quickly towards corporation tax for a moment, the Minister appears to be far from writing off lowering the business duty, despite suggestions from Finance Minister Conor Murphy that it was off the table. “I’m a low taxation person,” Ms Dodds says.
“I don’t want anyone to over-egg the pudding in a ‘he says, she says’ kind of way, but it (corporation tax) should always remain as part of the toolkit.”
She’s just taken over arguably the widest ranging portfolio in the Executive, a role held by her DUP predecessor Simon Hamilton, before the collapse of the Assembly in 2016, and will be responsible for everything from the economy, energy, skills and further education right through to tourism, overseeing multiple arms-length bodies and the roll-out of the Government’s Project Stratum broadband programme.
The former MEP, who was co-opted to the Assembly following the December General Election, says it’s a “very big brief and department to manage”. “My most immediate priority in terms of the economy is to try and work to resolve some of the short to medium-term impacts of the NI protocol and how that might work out for the economy,” she says.
“In terms of skills, I want to see us review some of the programmes that are there – (I’m) excited to work with the Department of Education on a 14-19 year-old strategy.
“Energy has also been taking up a lot of my time – not just in terms of RHI, but how we get low-carbon, competitive, clean and green energy to promote an economy that reflects those values.”
The Minister says focus in the coming months is obviously around Brexit, and working alongside her counterparts and Executive colleagues to mitigate any short-term issues that arise.
“I think there are huge opportunities. There are opportunities to be had. There are risks to be minimised, and for Northern Ireland as part of the UK we will be part of the fifth largest economy in the world, an economy which is outward-looking, global, and will invest in its infrastructure. I’m looking forward to working on those priorities.
“If those deliver, if we can deliver some of those things, we will then deliver better jobs, more prosperity and better prospects for families.”
The word risk still comes up around what may arise in the coming months and year or two, as the UK exits the EU and arrangements around cross-border and GB trade become clearer.
And while exploring new markets will be on the agenda for many businesses here, Ms Dodds strongly reinforces her view that there should be a focus on the “solid rock” of the overall UK economy, as a whole.
“Around 70% of everything we make and grow is sold within the UK. It is by far our biggest and most important market. We will be able to grow other markets but that market remains the rock of the economy here.”
Asked whether she can confidently represent the business community, which largely backed Remain, she believes things have moved along, and she’s keen to work with colleagues, businesses and their various representative groups.
“I want to work, not just with the Assembly, committee and the Executive, I want to work with businesses in NI and their representative bodies to make sure that what we are doing is co-ordinated and in the best interests of Northern Ireland,” she says.
“I think the argument has kind of passed its sell-by date and now we are in a different scenario and now have to work to maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks.
“We are all grown-up people. We are all professional people, and we will all work together to make sure that Northern Ireland is represented in the best way (it can be) – and that is hugely important for us.
“Brexit and your choice is your democratic right. We are in a different place. We have, as part of the UK, left the EU. We now need to do what is right for Northern Ireland. In doing that I will work with all industry.”
And the overall feeling among the new Executive and Assembly? The Minister believes “there is a very good mood in the body politic”.
“We want to play a full part (in negotiations)… that is critically important for us as well. The UK Government has now set up the UK Trade Forum… ministers from Wales and Scotland, and we have already held our first meeting. It is really important that we work with the other devolved administrations.
“… for now the short and medium term issues that occupy and obsess me in terms of the economy are the issues of access to our GB market, how we define and see legislation in terms of the unfettered access to the GB market, and how we access goods coming from GB to NI.”