Junior Minister's Speech- Retail NI 10 30th September 2010

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Thank you for the kind introduction. I’m grateful for the invitation to be with you here this morning at the Stormont Hotel. As a local MLA, it is also great to have your conference back in East Belfast once again. I must also congratulate the organisers for once again having managed to attract an impressive range of speakers.

The title of this mornings address is, ‘Devolution, the benefits to business.’ You were kind enough to omit the question mark from the end of that sentence but I know there are some in the wider public – and most in the media - who would not have been so generous. While that is understandable I think it is more about a failure to communicate our successes than it is about substance.

I am absolutely convinced that devolution is in the best interests of business and of Northern Ireland as a whole, but I am only too aware that there are those who see Stormont as a place where nothing ever gets done and politicians simply spend their time arguing and bickering with one another instead of focussing on what the public actually want. If there is any truth in that it is only a very small part of what politicians from all sides of the community actually want to achieve.

Unlike in most administrations our political arguments are not just fought out behind closed doors but in the media. In a five party coalition such a state of affairs should not be a surprise and just reflects how politics is done in Northern Ireland.

While disagreement may sometimes be seen as an unwillingness to compromise, it can also be a strong commitment to your beliefs and the basis on which we were elected. I have found most people much more willing to accept the idea of compromise in theory than in practice. But while disagreement is reasonable, in the final analysis the Executive is there to take decisions and to get things done.

For perfectly understandable historical reasons our form of government is not primarily designed for fast or bold decision making. In time that will have to change but for now we have to deal with the circumstances that we are faced with. And we are not unique in that regard.

I am reminded of the conversation between President Kennedy and Prime Minister MacMillan after a meeting in Bermuda when they were talking informally, MacMillan described his plans for the next budget. Kennedy, aware of his own struggles with Congress, asked, "But what will Parliament do?"

"Parliament?," said MacMillan. "But we have a majority, so they will just pass whatever the cabinet recommends."

"You recommend it; they pass it?" said Kennedy. "My God, anyone could run a country like that."

If only it were so simple in Northern Ireland even to get the Executive to recommend something!

But today I want to set out the case for the defence, highlighting what has been achieved but also mindful of where we need to do better.

Rather like the old question of, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’, I hope you will be convinced by the answer of what devolution has achieved not just for business but in Northern Ireland as a whole.

But first let us be clear about the precise role of government in general and the Executive in particular.  We are only one part, and not even the main reason why business will succeed or fail. While we have a vital role in ensuring long term prosperity in Northern Ireland the role of the banks, the national government, the markets and the global economic climate are all equally if not more important.
As you will be aware, matters such as the rate of Value Added Tax or the Sterling Euro exchange rate can both have a major impact on your business and over which we have no control. Though while we cannot control every aspect of what affects business we must get right the aspects over which we do have some control.

I have no doubt that the single most important precondition for economic progress is a peaceful and stable society. I believe that this Executive has played a major role in delivering that.

From the time the last Stormont Parliament was prorogued in 1972 until this Executive took office in May 2007 you could measure the time when power was exercised in Northern Ireland by locally elected Ministers in months rather than years.

This period was dominated by decades of violence bringing not only death but economic destruction as well.  While the rest of the world moved on we were held back. International investment was few and far between and even few of the large UK retailers came to Northern Ireland. Today there are few of the big UK retailers that are not yet on the High Street in Northern Ireland – and a year from now I hope it will be even fewer.

If anyone doubts the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland you only have to go and see the hotels and shops and restaurants that are open across the Province today. That is the testament to the society that has been created out of the ashes of the conflict that blighted our society.

Even when relative peace came with the ceasefires in the mid 1990s political stability remained elusive. The Assembly elected in 1998 was suspended on four separate occasions and stumbled from one crisis to the next before collapsing altogether.

The restoration of the Assembly from its suspension in 2002 did not come about quickly but in the period from 2002 until 2007 the foundations for lasting peace and political stability were laid. As a result today we are enjoying the longest period of devolution in forty years and what is more important is that I can confidently say that it is here to stay.

That is not to say that there have not been problems along the way but one by one they have been overcome - though often reports of the resolution of difficulties makes much less news than the failure to resolve them. Earlier this year we reached agreement on what was one of the most difficult political issues, the devolution of policing and with this the last remaining obstacle to long term stability was removed.

There still remains a threat from those who would wish to destabilise society here but unlike in the past their attempts to plunge Northern Ireland back to the past have the effect of uniting rather than dividing those of us who are involved in the political process.

Dangers remain along the way but the determination for politics to succeed is now I believe irreversible right across the community. If I am honest I would say that the peaceful and stable society that we have in Northern Ireland today is the single greatest contribution that could be made to business and economic success.

If you will forgive the expression the success of politics and economics are inextricably linked.  Our fates are more intertwined than many of you or some politicians would like to accept.

This stability allows local businesses to invest and prosper and it allows Northern Ireland to compete for international investment abroad on a level playing field.  And we are having considerable success. 
Only a few weeks ago the New York Stock Exchange opened up new offices in Belfast and will provide hundreds of well paid new jobs. And as we speak the US Television Network HBO are filming a brand new TV show here in Belfast.

From day one the Executive demonstrated its commitment to business by making growing the economy our number one priority in our Programme for Government and Budget. In a time of many competing priorities it is remarkable that all the main political parties signed up to this vital economic agenda and this has also laid the foundations for the progress that has been made despite the global economic downturn.  We did not create the economic problems, but we have a responsibility to help deal with them.

In the first budget back in 2007 the Executive sent out a clear signal of our intentions by freezing business rates in real terms and capping manufacturing rates. Since then we have also introduced a Small Business Rate relief scheme to further assist the sector.

Investment by the Executive in capital projects has been especially important in the last few years in maintaining jobs and building for the future. At a time when private sector investment was falling through the economic difficulties the Northern Ireland Executive was spending more than ever before – well over £1 billion per year in capital expenditure.

Later this morning you will hear from my colleague Edwin Poots about the Planning System but here too we have seen significant improvements, though more needs to be done.  Though in this area it is not just the planning system but those who seek to use the courts as a block on development for vested financial interests who are denying Northern Ireland much needed private investment. The approach that the courts take to such challenges to planning decisions will also have a key impact on the progress that we are able to make.

Next month Secretary of State Clinton will be hosting the US-NI economic conference at the State Department in Washington and whatever the scepticism, I am sure that in the longer term that too will see new jobs brought to Northern Ireland.

It has been said that it is not government that creates jobs, but business – though in Northern Ireland with the size of the public sector this has not always been entirely true – but it will certainly be the case in the next few years.

Major challenges lie ahead. Our unemployment rate, while still less than the UK average and well below that of the Republic of Ireland, continues to rise. The Chancellor’s Spending Review due on the 20 October will have major implications for public expenditure in Northern Ireland and could threaten the strength of the recovery here.

Devolution allows us to make our own decisions. But that does not mean that making decisions will be easy.  After a decade of strong public expenditure growth, we are facing a sharp reduction over the next four years. The extent to which we can successfully manage this process will be a real test for the Executive.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister met the Chancellor earlier this week and made the case for Northern Ireland.  But the reality is that while the exact scale of the cuts remains unclear, really significant decisions will have to be taken. Some of this will involve learning to prioritise more aggressively and deliver government more efficiently – something that is difficult even in a benign public expenditure environment – but some of it will undoubtedly have an impact on the extent of public services that can be afforded.

The CBI made an interesting and useful contribution to this debate last week and no doubt that others will also bring their perspectives in the days ahead. The challenges that we face will not go away by ignoring them or by refusing to accept reality. It is time that we moved away from the politics of opposition which is easy but ultimately futile to taking responsibility for the decisions that we are faced with.  We are not responsible for the budget cuts but we are responsible for making the best use of the money available to us.

Over the last three and a half years the Executive has been tested both from within and from outside and while I am the first to accept that we have not always excelled, we have survived and made considerable progress.

But the novelty of our merely surviving has worn off and now difficult decisions are faced. Such is the measure of our success is that in the future we will be judged not merely by the survival of the institutions but the prosperity of the Province. This will provide the platform for business in Northern Ireland.

Difficult economic times lie ahead, but nothing compared to the challenges that we have already endured and have overcome.

I don’t need to tell you that your industry is at the cutting edge of our economy and you will see and feel changing economic conditions more acutely and quickly than virtually any other part of the economy.
Your contribution to economic growth over the last decade has been immeasurable and has helped transform Northern Ireland.

Next May the politicians will face the verdict of the public, but I believe that as time goes on the real value of devolution even with all its faults will be seen as Northern Ireland continues to move forward.

I hope and trust your part of the economy will continue to prosper and help deliver the new future for Northern Ireland that we all want to see. You can be assured that the Executive working in partnership with you will do all that it can to make this a reality.