The Economy minister has defended the make-up of a new economic advisory group, insisting its members are international leaders in their fields.
Diane Dodds was responding to criticism from MLAs that the body, which comprises a number of chief executives and business experts, does not include trade union figures, academics or representatives from the social enterprise sector or green economy.
Appearing before her Assembly scrutiny committee at Stormont, Mrs Dodds said: “The Economic Advisory Group is made up of people who are leaders in their field and they are there to identify global market opportunities as well as opportunities across Northern Ireland.”
She said her department would always focus on industries that are already well established in the region, such as tourism and agri-food.
The minister said the group would seek to identify emerging global opportunities and trends that Northern Ireland could tap into as the world economy rebuilds after lockdown.
The EAG will be chaired by Ellvena Graham, former head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland.
“This is an exciting opportunity to work together with the business community as our partners, as we develop an economy strategy for the long-term future of Northern Ireland,” Mrs Dodds told the committee.
The minister unveiled the membership of the group earlier on Wednesday as she published a 12 to 18-month recovery plan post-Covid-19.
The strategy focuses on delivering higher paying jobs, developing a highly skilled workforce and a more regionally balanced economy.
Committee chairwoman Caoimhe Archibald was among those calling for the group’s membership to be expanded.
“The group must be representative of the cross section of our economy,” said the Sinn Fein MLA.
“Amongst the current membership are no representatives of workers, climate science or the green economy.
“To be effective, and to seriously deal with longstanding problems of the past, the crisis of the present, and the threat of climate breakdown, the minister must now widen out the membership of the Economic Advisory Group.”
The SDLP’s Sinead McLaughlin described it as a missed opportunity.
“Not detracting from the high level of expertise on the group, and we look forward to working with them, it is deeply disappointing that there is no representation from trade union, community and voluntary sector and our thriving social economy sector,” she said.
“These sectors are critical to our efforts to build a fairer, greener economy that works for everyone and their voices would be a valuable part of this conversation.”
Addressing the committee, the DUP’s Gary Middleton said Northern Ireland was lucky to have such an array of experts on the group.
“This group is about bringing together world leaders,” he said.
“It should be actually commended that we have some of these people to go on to this group given… their schedules and their expertise – these are global players.
“I think it’s very welcome and I do look forward to hearing from them.”
Pleased to launch our Economic Advisory Group & plans to rebuild the Northern Ireland economy.— Diane Dodds MLA (@DianeDoddsMLA) June 17, 2020
I have no doubt that their combined business expertise will lead to advice and recommendations which will be extremely valuable as we plan for the future.https://t.co/V3vIEd68ik pic.twitter.com/EoMfDfWMTb
Meanwhile environmental charity the RSPB welcomed the Minister’s commitment to build an ‘inclusive and green economy’ but questioned the lack of representation of those with expertise in green economics.
RSPB NI Director, Joanne Sherwood, who said: “It would be remiss to move forward without this expertise on the Economic Advisory Group and we would urge the Minister to give serious consideration to co-opting an expert in natural capital and green economics onto the group to fill this gap”.
The minister’s Rebuilding A Stronger Economy plan, published on Wednesday, said Northern Ireland will face a “deep and prolonged economic downturn” as a result of the pandemic.
The economic challenges, including an expected increase in unemployment and a drop in consumer spending, are likely to be “further compounded” by the lack of clarity around Brexit, the report added.
Mrs Dodds said the numbers added to the unemployment register in April were more than the jobs created in the previous six years.
“I think it shows the depth of the difficulty very, very starkly,” she told MLAs.
“Six years of labour market progress just disappeared with those people who were added to the register in April and, as you can see, this trend has continued.”
The minister said young people and women would be hardest hit by the contraction of the employment market.
On Brexit, Mrs Dodds said unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the Great Britain market remained her department’s key priority.
She said she had been in contact with the Government to ensure the region was not hindered from benefiting from new trade deals by the Northern Ireland protocol arrangements.
“Northern Ireland should access them on the same basis as every other part of the United Kingdom’s internal market,” she said.
The protocol will see Northern Ireland apply single market rules on some goods and act as a customs entry point for the EU.
Asked about the prospect of some UK traders pulling out of Northern Ireland due to additional checks across the Irish Sea, she said: “It is my job to ensure that neither our consumers are restricted in their choice or by the price of the goods and commodities that they require, and that our manufacturing sector has access to its most important market.”
She asked whether the EU was backtracking on its pledge that checks could be kept to a minimum.