Northern Ireland’s biggest jobs promoter has been attacked for organising almost 300 investment visits to Belfast last year — and none in other areas of the province.
The challenge came from the chair of the Assembly committee which monitors the Executive, Colin McGrath, who said there were 278 investor trips to Belfast in the financial year 2018/19 but none in South Down and Strangford over three years.
The SDLP MLA asked: “How can Invest NI get away with doing more than 250 visits to Belfast and fewer than 80 around the rest of the entire North?”
In terms of maintaining regional equality, how could it be kept realistic “if agencies are just going to go away off the mark when it comes to delivery on the ground.”
Senior Executive official Chris Stewart replied: “I am not trying to avoid the detail on that...”
But the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry official added he was not in a position to comment on the distribution of Invest NI visits but would bring it to the attention of the Department of the Economy.
In a priority written question to Economy Minister Diane Dodds, Mr McGrath then asked who made the decisions about where the visits take place and what accountability exists for a regionally balanced approach.
Mrs Dodds said she appreciated the lack of visits to some areas across Northern Ireland is disappointing but “the reality is the investor makes the decision based on their business needs and having considered all the options available to them.
“Steering an investor to locate in any one area... would be both counterproductive and damaging to Northern Ireland’s investment reputation.”
The DUP minister said many investors invite councils and other stakeholders to meet them in Belfast because they are only staying for a short number of hours.
“For this reason the number of visits to Belfast might seem disproportionately high. What is more relevant is that in the last five years over 40 % of investors have chosen to locate outside Belfast,” the former MEP added.