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Last Updated: Monday, 5 March 2007, 10:52 GMT
Glamour or gloom for economy?
Yvette Shapiro
By Yvette Shapiro
BBC Northern Ireland business correspondent

Malaysia in April, Washington in June, or Hong Kong in November... all potential destinations for the new economy minister.

hongkong
The opportunities are endless for the new economy minister

Like beauty contestants, candidates for the post must be keen to travel and ready to lead an intrepid band of Northern Ireland exporters on trade missions to new and exciting markets.

And there's also ample opportunity to utilise those skills of persuasion and influence, finely-honed during endless hours of political negotiation at St Andrews, Downing Street and Stormont.

Invest Northern Ireland often calls upon the services of the economy minister as it tries to seal the deal with a new foreign investor.

The secretary of state recently met senior executives from the US investment bank J P Morgan in New York as part of Invest NI's attempt to secure an inward investment.

That's the glamorous side of the job, but it's not without its dangers, as the current Economy Minister Maria Eagle discovered last Autumn.

Ms Eagle led a trade mission to Canada, which included a visit to Bombardier in Montreal.

She met the chairman and senior directors and posed for photographs. Smiles all round.

No smiles, though, a short time later when Bombardier announced that it was cutting more than 600 jobs at the Shorts factory in east Belfast because of falling sales of its regional jets.

banknotes
Northern Ireland has one of the worst rates in the UK for economic inactivity and incapacity benefit levels

Did Ms Eagle know that the axe was due to fall as she enjoyed Bombardier's hospitality the previous week?

Could she have done something to change the company's mind?

No, she told the BBC, the company didn't tell her about the planned redundancies.

And she said there was nothing she could have done to stop them.

Ms Eagle sympathised with those facing unemployment, and pledged that the government would do all it could to support Shorts and its workers in the future.

And then she got on with the business of being a direct rule minister with a range of portfolios, including employment and culture.

Maria Eagle, of course, doesn't answer to the community in Northern Ireland at election time.

Imagine, the pressure for a locally-elected member of the assembly, with no direct rule drawbridge to pull up when circumstances overtake the best of intentions.

More, much more, than denials and sympathy would be demanded by constituents, trade unions and workers facing redundancy.

Redundancy announcements aside, who wouldn't want to be economy minister right now?

'Many challenges'

House prices are soaring, the retail sector is booming, exports are growing and employment's at an all-time high.

But it's not all good news.

Here's a recent economic assessment from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC):

The new minister can make a difference in some areas, but in others he or she will be beholden to the chancellor

"Northern Ireland has the lowest business formation rate in the UK and the highest dependence on both the public sector and on continued high levels of public expenditure.

"Over 500,000 people are now economically inactive and some sectors of the economy are in steady decline.

"With almost two-thirds of all employees working in the public sector, retail and hospitality, transforming Northern Ireland's public-sector dominated economy into one that is private sector led will require radical initiatives backed by unwavering political and business support."

Still want the job?

Maria Eagle herself admits that there are "many challenges" to be tackled.

I asked her what she felt her Stormont successor should get to grips with first.

She picked out the skills shortage as a priority for action.

Any leading industrialist - particularly the engineers - will tell you that Northern Ireland will be hard pressed to service the future needs of industry unless it can marry what education is providing with what industry needs.

To put it bluntly, too many media studies graduates and not enough electronic engineers.

There's strong optimism that devolution could help to lever significant levels of foreign investment, but equally strong fears that our pool of manpower will be "fit for purpose".

The chairman of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, Frank Bryan, outlines what is required.

"We need a skilled workforce of tomorrow that will meet the needs of the economy," he said.

shortsfactory
The Shorts factory in east belfast faces huge job losses

"Crucially, we need the right calibre of careers guidance to assist each child to realise their potential and to have an opportunity to contribute to our economy."

And what of the huge pool of people who are not working, not seeking jobs and not available to work.

Some 27% of the local population - 281,000 people of working age - are defined as "economically inactive".

More than a quarter of these are classified as long-term sick.

Northern Ireland has one of the worst rates in the UK for economic inactivity and incapacity benefit levels.

Successive government initiatives have tried, and failed, to make a dent in the figures.

The new economy minister will not be able to bask in the glow of the headline unemployment figures while more than 250,000 people are below the employment radar.

The new minister can make a difference in some areas, but in others he or she will be beholden to the chancellor - be it Gordon Brown or someone else.

The case for harmonising Northern Ireland's level of corporation tax with that of the Irish Republic has been strongly made by the local political parties and many business leaders and economists.

So far, the treasury has resisted calls for the 30% rate paid by all UK businesses to be reduced for Northern Ireland companies to 12.5%.

Gordon Brown hasn't ruled it out, but his closest advisers say he won't, and can't, do it without invoking demands for a similar perk from Scotland, Wales and parts of northern England, all of which are desperate to encourage business growth and foreign investment.

The argument for lower corporation tax is still being put forward by all of the political parties, but it will be for the new economy minister - and the new finance minister - to decide if it's an attainable goal and if they can spare the time and the effort to fight for it.


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