There is an old maxim that nothing worth doing comes easy, and that is certainly the experience I have had since being appointed as Economy Minister back in January. The past few months will go down as one of the most disruptive periods in our history and a challenging time for governments across the world.
This may not be a ‘full mandate’ in the sense that we had three lost years, but I am absolutely determined to use my time as Minister wisely, get us through this turbulent period and lay the foundations for Northern Ireland’s next century.
Any economy experiencing months of lockdown would suffer as a consequence and it is an unfortunate inevitability that we will, in the immediate term at least, see an increase in unemployment as a result. However, the local economy will recover. The issue is how fast that recovery will be.
I have been clear that an economic shock of this magnitude would prove to be particularly challenging for a number of sectors, and we have regrettably already seen job losses in aviation and aerospace, and incredibly challenging circumstances for those working in tourism, hospitality, car sales and elements of retail.
Our short term challenge was how to keep businesses from failing during the lockdown, and through the distribution of more than a quarter of a billion pounds worth of financial aid, coupled with a rates holiday and national job retention scheme, we have been able to keeps tens of thousands of businesses trading now that the economy is opening up again.
I have already established a tourism recovery task force and have asked Invest NI to bring together stakeholders from across the aerospace industry to see what support they need from both national and devolved government.
At present we are seeing companies adjusting their business models, supply chains becoming more local, people valuing their local shops and locally produced food, and in tourism we are likely to see a greater focus on markets closer to home.
Northern Ireland has a number of core industries, such as our agri-food and manufacturing sectors, that will continue to be supported and will continue to be of huge importance to our local economy. But I also want to ensure that we look to the longer term strategy on how to build an economy for the future and understand where future opportunities for our young people will be.
We need to be realistic. We are a small country and cannot excel at everything. We need to be selective and concentrate on a handful of sectors where we can be genuinely world class.
To do this job properly requires an innovative and collaborative approach to policy. That is why I asked Ellvena Graham to Chair an Economic Advisory Group comprised of experts across a range of sectors.
The EAG will provide advice and support to me as I formulate my Economic Strategy, identify trends and opportunities for Northern Ireland as the new global economy emerges from COVID with strong influences in growing markets across places like China and India.
The sectors of growth were already changing, but the disruption caused by COVID will undoubtedly accelerate these changes and provide opportunities for those who respond quickest.
I want to see Northern Ireland companies seize those opportunities, whether in the tech sector with a focus on big data, cyber security, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and automation, all key areas as we adjust to new work practices.
Climate change also remains high on the global agenda and I believe that Northern Ireland is well placed to lead the way in decarbonisation and developing clean energy, whether through developing our renewables offering or pioneering new, green forms of transport.
We already have a centre of excellence for manufacturing, and advanced manufacturing and materials handling is an area where Northern Ireland is held in high esteem and see the creation of high skilled, well paid jobs.
Ageing populations and improved technology also provides a massive opportunity for health and life sciences, with companies here in Northern Ireland providing ground breaking work for the benefit of communities across the world.
Over the coming weeks I intend on setting out our direction of travel as we equip ourselves for the next decade and beyond. Northern Ireland’s industrious reputation across the globe was built on our ship building, rope making and linen works. Our future could be as global leaders in cyber, life sciences, digital start-ups and advanced manufacturing.
I will work closely with business leaders and experts to identify opportunities and growth areas. I will work with our FE and HE sectors to ensure that they are partners in growing our economy and help ensure that young people have the rights skills to get ahead in life.
From every crisis emerges opportunities. We must not miss ours.