Stormont’s powersharing crisis and ongoing uncertainty over Brexit trade barriers are not dissuading investors from coming to Northern Ireland, the Economy Minister has insisted.
Gordon Lyons said the region remained an attractive destination for businesses as he attended an investment event in Belfast.
The Northern Ireland Showcase heard from local and international business figures about what they saw as the benefits of investing in the region.
As well as being attended by representatives from Northern Ireland companies, the event was also live-streamed to allow would-be investors to watch remotely.
Speaking to reporters ahead of addressing the showcase, DUP minister Mr Lyons was asked whether his party’s decision to pull his first minister out of the Executive, a move that removed the administration’s ability to function properly, would put off investors.
The minister said political events at Stormont were not the primary focus for investors.
“What the investors are focused on is actually that what we have to offer here, the talents of our people, the skills that we have here, the cost-competitive environment, the business friendly environment, that’s what’s attracting people to Northern Ireland,” he said.
“That’s what’s bringing people here, what’s creating jobs, and creating the success that we’ve seen in the past, success that has led to Northern Ireland being second only to London for foreign direct investment (in the UK). That’s what we’re here to celebrate today.”
First Minister Paul Givan quit last month as part of the DUP’s campaign against the Northern Ireland Protocol, the post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created barriers on goods moving from Great Britain into the region.
The DUP continues to highlight the significant economic damage it claims the protocol is causing in Northern Ireland.
Mr Lyons was asked why investors would consider setting up in the region if the protocol was as damaging as he said it was.
“It does have consequences for businesses in Northern Ireland and we’ve seen that time and time again,” he said.
The minister said he wanted to make sure businesses continued to come to Northern Ireland.
“Those are the businesses that I want to make sure that we’re continuing to support and continue to make sure that we have that proper environment in which they can trade,” he said.
“The protocol is a problem, especially for businesses that are here already. I want to make sure that we deal with that, that we sort that out so that we don’t have that inhibiting our economic growth.”
Advocates of the protocol claim it offers Northern Ireland-based businesses an economic advantage, as the arrangements provide exporters dual market access to trade within the UK internal market and the EU single market without any restrictions.
Mr Lyons was asked whether dual market access would be part of his pitch to prospective investors at the showcase event.
“That’s not something that is coming up to me time and time again,” he said.
“It’s something I think that many people wish was a fantastic benefit here, especially those that supported the protocol.
“But again, it’s the issues around our talent, our creativity, our people, the business friendly environment, the links that we have here with local universities, those are the real selling points and those are the things that people are really interested in.
“Of course, the dual market access issue has been blighted by the fact that we struggle and have additional frictions getting goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
“That’s an issue that I want to see sorted out, it’s an issue I hope will be sorted out soon.”
Mr Lyons was also asked about ongoing issues at Invest NI.
The business development agency recently suspended fresh offers of financial support to investors amid uncertainty over the organisation’s budget for the next financial year.
Stormont’s draft budget for the next three years prioritized spending on the health service, resulting in other departments receiving less than they might have expected.
The Department for the Economy is also facing a further funding shortfall due to the loss of EU grants after Brexit.
Funding previously provided by Europe, which would have bolstered Invest NI’s budget, has not been fully replaced by the UK Government.
Uncertainty over budgetary issues intensified with the collapse of the Executive earlier this month.
Without a functioning administration, a budget for next year cannot be struck and departments face the prospect of relying on emergency arrangements to continue spending in April.
Earlier this week, Mr Lyons provided Invest NI with an indicative budget allocation for the coming financial year.
The minister was asked about the loss of EU funding as he attended the showcase event.
He insisted that the gap would ultimately be filled with UK Government money. The minister said the bigger problem was the allocation to his department that had been proposed under the draft three-year budget.
“EU funding would be replaced, we need to make sure that that goes in the right arena,” he said.
“However, the greater problem that we face is the fact that we were given a budget with cuts that would not have allowed us to stand still, never mind progress to where we need to go to.
“That’s why I couldn’t support it. It didn’t have majority support in the executive, never mind cross-community support which is required.
“It was a budget that was going nowhere.”
Interim chief executive of Invest NI Mel Chittock said the indicative budget allocation for the organization would now enable it to plan for the year ahead.
He said investments would be prioritized and acknowledged that projects that might have previously received Invest NI support might not get grants going forward.
Mr Chittock, who also attended Thursday’s event, said while it was not business as usual at Invest NI, the agency was still in a strong position.
“The current situation is very, very good, very, very strong,” he said.
“We’ve got a very strong pipeline in terms of work in progress. We have over 500 projects that we are considering. There has been a slight pause in activities over the last number of weeks, simply because the budget position needs to be clarified.
“And, as I said at the Economy Committee yesterday, it would be wrong of us to actually have committed to new business without clarity on the budget.
“We now have that, we have a good budget settlement. We’re now working towards prioritizing those projects and taking those projects forward.”