Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 1 October 2001
The Assembly met at noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Assembly will be aware that in Lurgan this weekend we witnessed the brutal murder of a member of the press, the journalist Martin O’Hagan. I propose that, as the central democratic institution in Northern Ireland, the Assembly be suspended for half an hour as a mark of respect and as an expression of our sympathy and horror over what has happened. This was an attack not just on a human being and on a family, but on the basic and fundamental democratic right to free speech and to freedom of expression.
The Assembly does not normally suspend without discussion through the usual channels, unless there is a threat or actual disorder in the Chamber. There is no doubt, however, that this event was particularly repugnant. We try to live in a democratic society, and this was a clear attack on it. Perhaps there is no group of people closer to us than members of the press, except perhaps other Members of the House and members of staff.
Martin O’Hagan was undoubtedly known to most if not all Members of the Assembly. However, to suspend at this time and show the cameras simply an empty House, and for people to busy themselves with other things would not, perhaps, be the right thing to do. It might be better if Members were to stand in their places and show the people of Northern Ireland a House united in reflection on the life, the work and the devotion to duty of Mr O’Hagan. It would also be a reflection on the tragedy for his wife and his family circle. The House should stand together in defiant repugnance of this awful event.
In response to the point of order, I ask the House to stand together in silent reflection for two minutes on the murder of Mr Martin O’Hagan.
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
It is difficult to turn our minds to more ordinary responsibilities, but it is our duty to do so.
That this Assembly suspends Standing Order 10(2) and Standing Order 10(6) for Monday 1 October 2001.— [Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.]
I have received notice from the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment that he wishes to make a statement on the consequences that the terrorist attacks in the United States are having on the aerospace industry.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Sir Reg Empey):
A copy of my statement will be available shortly. I apologise for its not being available now, but I am sure that Members can appreciate that its contents are continuously changing. I hope that it will be circulated shortly.
As we meet today, Northern Ireland is facing, by any standards, its stiffest economic test in over a decade. We are not, of course, immune to world conditions, and we cannot be insulated against the chill of recessions. However, we are not entirely helpless; there are measures that we can take to help minimise the impact. We can and must fight back. We cannot single-handedly reverse international trends, but we can use our influence to apply the brakes as world markets talk themselves into a tailspin.
In just six days, Northern Ireland has been dealt a number of severe blows, and more bleak economic news is likely. The livelihoods of thousands of people, through no fault of their own, are threatened by terrorism. Even before the appalling events of 11 September, all indicators pointed to troubled waters ahead. What happened in New York, Washington and Pittsburgh catapulted us into an economic crisis.
Those who plotted and planned the dreadful attack on the United States also calculated the effects that their actions would have on world markets. Not only were they determined to cause colossal loss of life, but they were fixed on exploiting the mayhem that they would cause. They wanted to kill on an unimaginable scale and, in the ensuing uncertainty and chaos, profit from their murderous acts and force markets into free fall. That way, the free world would be dealt a double blow.
Since 11 September, we have held our breath, knowing that Northern Ireland would not escape unscathed but hoping that the tidal wave would inflict minimal damage on our economy. We saw the fallout last week. The first company affected was Bombardier Aerospace, then it was British Airways, followed on Friday by Aer Lingus. Aircraft manufacturers and airlines have been the first to suffer. At its bleakest, the crisis could cause the loss of more than 2,200 well-paid jobs. The families involved will be traumatised, and the local economy will be shaken. Hundreds more who work in downstream businesses are waiting to see how they will be affected.
If the downward momentum is not arrested, the number of economic casualties will grow. We must seek ways of averting further decline, as well as ways of cushioning the blow. There is a world of difference between realistic assessment and self-fulfilling gloom; between slow-down and full-blown global recession. No one can deny the extent of the difficulties, but I see little point in talking our way into a doomsday scenario. Instead of queuing up to join the legions of pessimists, we should explore ways of getting off the treadmill of despondency. Instead of rushing to the lifeboats, we should set about reinvigorating the global economy. Instead of doing the work of the terrorists, we should have as our local, national and international objective the protection of the democratic way of life and the defeat of the madmen who would destroy it.
In the first instance, a co-ordinated global response to the economic difficulties and a similarly co-ordinated approach to creating the conditions for future growth will be required. Northern Ireland’s role in the global economy is limited. There is little that we can do in isolation. Our immediate task is to ensure that we take whatever steps we can to protect the local economy and assist our companies to remain competitive in an uncertain environment.
We must also ensure that Northern Ireland is positioned to take advantage of the inevitable global economic rebound. We are all deeply concerned about the situation and will seek to provide the positive leadership that the community has a right to expect. As an integral part of the United Kingdom and of the European Union, we will press for an early response to the current economic situation.
The management of Bombardier Aerospace has assured me of the group’s total commitment to its Northern Ireland operations and of its intention to resume recruitment when the global airline business recovers confidence. In my discussions with the local management, I was told that the fate of some of the 1,100 jobs in the second tranche of redundancies depended on the situation in the market in the new year. We must hope that the downturn in the aerospace industry is short-lived. However, most analysts expect the current problems to stretch well into the second half of next year, so we must be prepared for the long haul.
Bombardier Aerospace is deeply rooted in Northern Ireland and has invested over £1 billion here since 1989. The sites here are now an integral part of Bombardier Aerospace, which is heavily dependent on the sophisticated components that they continue to provide for virtually all its aircraft programmes. The group will require the expertise and facilities in Belfast and other parts of the Province when a decision is taken to ramp up production.
Bombardier Aerospace is the world’s third-biggest commercial aircraft manufacturer and makes an immense contribution to the local economy. It is our biggest private sector employer and our biggest inward investor. That continues to be a very substantial endorsement of Northern Ireland as an aerospace manufacturing centre of excellence.
It should be remembered that the company’s Northern Ireland operation, Bombardier Shorts, has faced setbacks in the past. The most serious was the loss of 1,500 jobs with the collapse of Fokker. It reinvented itself and emerged from the turmoil to become more competitive and to achieve even greater success. New products were identified and orders secured to replace the Fokker business. It met a massive challenge then, and prospered. Over the past year, for example, the company recruited 1,500 people as part of a £50 million growth plan across all its factories. I am confident, therefore, that Bombardier Shorts will overcome this current setback and will continue to play a pivotal role in the Northern Ireland economy for many years to come.
Members will be aware that I contacted the Prime Minister immediately after being briefed by Bombardier Shorts management about the company’s plans and their likely impact on local communities in Belfast, Newtownabbey, Dunmurry and Newtownards and on their many suppliers across Northern Ireland. I expressed my concern to the Prime Minister and to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, about the situation facing Northern Ireland, and I pressed for a meaningful UK-wide response. I emphasised that the loss of over 2,000 jobs to the Northern Ireland economy would be the equivalent of a loss of up to 70,000 jobs in Great Britain.
I urged the Government, working in conjunction with other national leaders, to ensure that interventions currently being considered for the airline industry be extended to the aerospace industry. Political input will be necessary if an appropriate response is to be developed and delivered. To improve cash flow, I have suggested the deferment of the payments of launch-aid assistance by the aerospace industry next year. I have also pressed the Government to assist with "soft" financing to help airlines purchase aircraft and kick-start demand. I believe that those measures would help to ease the pressures on the company, and I await a response from the Government.
Members will know that a number of UK airlines and aerospace companies are also experiencing acute difficulties as a result of the global economic downturn, as is shown by the very regrettable decision by British Airways — one of the best known names in aviation — to withdraw from the London Heathrow-to-Belfast route. The Department for Regional Development is making forceful representations to the company and the Government on a decision that will impact adversely on perceptions of Northern Ireland, particularly in North America.
It is still too early to assess the full impact on Northern Ireland of the Bombardier Aerospace announcement and how its employees and the local communities in Belfast, Dunmurry, Newtownards and Newtownabbey will be affected. However, the company has indicated that the job cuts will be spread across all its plants. The IDB is maintaining close contact with the company and will develop a programme, with the Department for Employment and Learning, to assist those who will lose their jobs. I have agreed with my Executive Colleagues, Dr Seán Farren, the Minister for Employment and Learning, and Maurice Morrow, the Minister for Social Development, to develop a co-ordinated interdepartmental approach.
Overall, the company spends in excess of £40 million annually with suppliers in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. Our aim will be to devise a safety net for those facing redundancy, helping them to explore alternative employment and/or reskilling opportunities.
My Department and its agencies, in particular the IDB and LEDU, together with the Training and Employment Agency, are examining the steps that they may be able to take, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Aerospace Consortium, to assist and safeguard employment in the many smaller companies in this important sector.
Aerospace has been one of our most dynamic, technology-led and export-focused industrial sectors. Upwards of 2,000 people are employed in aerospace companies other than Bombardier Shorts. Many of those firms have also widened their business to supply other aerospace companies such as Airbus, BAE Systems, TRW Lucas and Astrium. I draw encouragement, therefore, from the visit to Northern Ireland last week of senior managers from Airbus and other European aerospace companies. That is part of an ongoing programme of contacts that will, in time, lead to worthwhile business.
Clearly, the local aerospace industry has now developed a solid base and is particularly well-placed to achieve accelerated growth over the longer term. However, having endured the pain and adverse economic consequences of local terrorism for more than 30 years, it was a real blow to sustain such direct damage from global terrorism, all the more so since it comes at a time when we have been striving to build a platform that will provide political, social and economic stability.
The economy is still fundamentally strong. It has, after all, survived 30 years of upheaval and tragedy. We will face a tough year. It will be difficult to maintain the levels of inward investment achieved in recent years, and we will have to review our overall strategy to take account of the current problems. However, we have experienced and surmounted severe difficulties in the past.
Looking at the wider economy, we can draw confidence from the significant improvements in productivity, employment and exports over the past decade. Northern Ireland is now better placed to meet the current, very challenging, economic situation. Increasing productivity has been a feature of recent economic performance. The statistics indicate a consistent and strong growth in overall competitiveness. However, we are currently in uncharted waters. This will be an extremely difficult year.
The statistics show that the local economy is now more resilient and adaptable than ever before. Northern Ireland’s high rate of business survival after 36 months — 76·2%, compared with the UK average of 61% — owes much to the support that LEDU provides. Additionally, LEDU will assist some of those facing redundancy to consider starting their own enterprises.
We must continue to focus resources on the entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity that will enable Northern Ireland to come through the global upheaval with as little damage to the fundamentals of the local economy as possible. The reshaping of IDB, LEDU and the Industrial Research and Technology Unit into a single agency, Invest Northern Ireland, which is currently underway, will provide a much sharper focus, increase flexibility, and strengthen Northern Ireland’s competitive edge in the target technology-led sectors that will drive the global economy forward.
I assure those people most directly affected that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and all Departments, will do everything possible to help them find alternative employment opportunities. We look to Assembly Members for their continued support for the measures we shall take to protect the local economy.
It is most regrettable that we find ourselves in this situation, but when we hear about challenging terrorism on a worldwide basis, there will have to be a worldwide response in order to protect economies from the inevitable consequences of downturn. I hope that significant attention will shortly be paid by our own Government, the European Union, and the developed world to ensuring that confidence is restored and passengers are encouraged to travel by air once again. In that way, the spiral that we are at risk of entering would be checked and reversed.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Neeson):
I agree with the Minister that we should not join the band of the prophets of doom. However, by the same token, there is no room for complacency in the difficult days that lie ahead. I agree that there is a need for an interdepartmental approach to the issue. Since they took office, the Minister and Dr Farren have worked very closely together on the issue. The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment will address the issue when it meets this Wednesday. Does the Minister agree that there is a need for the Assembly to work collectively to face the challenge that lies ahead, and that we now need to ensure that we build on the strength of our indigenous industries.
Sir Reg Empey:
I said that there would be an interdepartmental response, and there will be.
I was hoping that by providing Members with an opportunity to discuss these problems at an early stage we would get a collective response. We must understand that Northern Ireland — as a small regional economy — is limited in what it can do. However, we are not powerless.
The lack of demand for aircraft has been precipitated by an act of terrorism and there has been a dramatic drop- off in the number of people using aircraft. To encourage people back will require responses from Governments and from national leaders — it will require a collective international effort. The Government in London have a role to play, and that is why I approached the Prime Minister as soon as the news had broken.
As the Deputy Chairperson knows, small businesses are the backbone of Northern Ireland’s economy and it is inevitable that concentration on that sector is vital. As far as the immediate issue is concerned, some measures can be taken to help companies such as Bombardier Shorts. Those measures will ease cash flow and, more importantly, stimulate demand for their products. Although demand for products has been strong and orders have not been cancelled, people are not in a position to take delivery of them — and that is the problem. That is the unique nature of this situation, and it not only applies to Bombardier Shorts but to other companies in Northern Ireland.
The problem is not the cancellation of orders; it is that companies have suddenly been confronted by a huge drop in cash flow and have not had time to plan for the consequences. There must be a twin-track approach and one of the key issues must be the stimulation of demand, which can only happen when people are prepared to return to using aircraft.
Mr J Wilson:
I thank the Minister for bringing his concerns to the House. Northern Ireland has been told to expect approximately 2,500 job losses as a result of the terrorist attacks on 11 September. Belfast International Airport is a major casualty, with British Airways’s decision to withdraw from the Heathrow route followed by Aer Lingus’s announcement on Friday.
Does the Minister agree that many of the decisions taken in corporate boardrooms are being based on little more than panic caused by worldwide speculation that we are heading for war and a global recession? Does he agree that the announcements are attempts to engage in hasty housekeeping to pre-empt an economic downturn?
Sir Reg Empey:
I am aware of the concerns that Mr Wilson and other Members have about the situation at Belfast International Airport. There are two things coming into play. Many people believe that part of the reason for the decisions that are being made does not stem from 11 September, but, in fact, is more deep-seated and goes back further. There may be an element of truth in that. However, irrespective of the reason, we are confronted with two difficult decisions.
While the number of routes from Northern Ireland to London has increased in the past couple of years, it is nevertheless significant that a national carrier has suddenly chosen not to use that route. It is significant because of the international connections that one can get through a major international airline. I am sure that the Member is aware that there has been speculation over the Heathrow- to-Belfast route for a number of years, and that recent events and changes of policy by some airlines using the airport have probably precipitated the decisions.
The situation is less clear with regard to the Aer Lingus decision, as that company is having to reshape its entire operation because of the economic effect of the huge drop in the number of people flying the north Atlantic, Aer Lingus’s most profitable route. Any trading company has legal responsibilities, and I have pointed out to the Irish authorities the impact of that decision. Mr Mallon and I will be writing to British Airways and to Aer Lingus in this regard.
I thank the Minister for bringing this serious economic downtown to the attention of the Assembly so promptly. I also commend him for his initiative in asking the Exchequer for additional funding and for the proposed interdepartmental grouping which will assist the industries and individuals affected.
Will the Minister agree that job loss and lack of income will affect many communities throughout the North, other than those he has mentioned? In particular, will he address the plight of B/E Aerospace; a manufacturer of aircraft furnishings in Kilkeel, whose workload has plummeted as a consequence of the problems of the airline industry? The decline in employment in that company is as significant to the rural community of Kilkeel as that of Bombardier Shorts is to Belfast. I seek the Minister’s assurance that the financial, retraining and administrative assistance that he has outlined for Bombardier will also apply to B/E Aerospace as a matter of urgency.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am acutely aware of the situation at the Kilkeel factory and have already met with its senior executives. IDB officials have already met with the company, and we are in discussion with them. The company is liaising with its parent company in Connecticut; we will keep in close contact to see how we can help. The plant in Kilkeel is a very large employer, relatively and locally, so that anything that happens to that company will have a major impact on the local community. I have no doubt that should the need arise, my Colleague Dr Farren and my Department will supply the same help to that company as we would to Bombardier Shorts.
Mr P Robinson:
I thank the Minister for taking the first opportunity he could to make a statement on the issue and for the early briefing he provided to me on matters relating to Bombardier Shorts.
The Minister said in his statement that this situation arises out of an international problem — it is a global trend. We would be deceiving ourselves in thinking that our regional Assembly can have any major impact on future job losses in this area. Everything will depend on confidence in the airline industry. Many of Bombardier Shorts’ problems do not result from cancelled orders, but from deferred deliveries because the financial sector has not got the bottle to put its money forward. The key to averting further job losses at Bombardier Shorts is therefore for the Minister and his Colleagues to convince Her Majesty’s Government to advance financial guarantees for a limited period, until the financial world is prepared to take up the packages and resources that would be the norm.
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member is correct in saying that this is a global issue and that Governments must put forward ideas to assist firms and to create the correct international circumstances in which the aerospace industry can recover. I have been attempting to do that. Although we have a small regional economy, we can still put forward ideas. We are presenting to the Government ideas that are designed to assist the cash flow problems of the companies that are affected here and to deal with confidence and international demand. Not only can those matters be directly affected by financial institutions, they must be led by Governments. That will have to be done internationally, with the involvement of the European Union, the United States of America and our own Government.
There are several areas in which Governments can assist to protect the cash flow of companies that are directly affected. It would be supremely ironic if, given the campaign that has been launched against terrorism, terrorists were to succeed in destroying the economic infrastructure of many of the countries that are ostensibly waging war against them.
Our duty is to do what we can not only to alleviate the short-term problems of the individual who is affected by the loss of his or her job but to put forward ideas to help to reconstruct demand for our products.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. We all share the Minister’s concern about the economic downturn, and he warned us of a strong likelihood of further bleak economic news. Although the problem of job losses will be a priority, will the Minister ensure that jobs are spread throughout the North of Ireland, and that the active targeting of areas of social need will not stop in these bad economic times?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member will be aware that the effect of significant job losses is not confined to the communities near a plant, and Mr McGrady made that point. There are four Bombardier Shorts plants in Northern Ireland, but the employees at each plant come from a broad surrounding area. Our economic objectives are to ensure that as much economic activity as possible is generated in New TSN areas. My Department is committed to meeting its targets for New TSN, and it did so in the last financial year. However, we are in uncharted waters. We cannot instruct companies where to go. We can guide and encourage them and we can improve the skills of those who live in particular areas, but there are limitations. I assure the Member that my Department has not lost sight of those points. Where large numbers of people are losing jobs and revenue, no matter what part of Northern Ireland they live in, it will have a negative impact on everybody.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. What type of support programmes will be made available to those affected by the economic crisis? Will he encourage his Department to assist workers by ensuring that at least as much money is spent on them as is spent on assisting companies, thus lessening the strain that economic downturn puts on the pockets of workers?
Finally, will he, conscious that the economic downturn was predicted before 11 September, encourage his Department to be a watchdog in case some businesses see America’s problem as a business opportunity?
Before I call on the Minister to respond, I draw the House’s attention to the fact that I have received notice that the Minister for Employment and Learning will be making a statement after the questions on this statement, and that statement may deal with some of the matters that the Member has raised.
Sir Reg Empey:
I am grateful, Mr Speaker — I was about to say that Dr Farren will be addressing those issues. However, I will respond to Mr Ervine’s point about being conscious of the downturn before 11 September. We were all acutely aware that there was an undoubted downturn. However, we must ensure that applications from companies are judged on their economic merits and we will continue to do that.
On the issue of money that is spent on companies, nobody is naïve enough to believe that simply providing cash for a company is, in itself, a solution. The problem arose from an almost instantaneous lack of demand. As another Member for East Belfast, Mr P Robinson, pointed out, a deferment created the present crisis. That will not necessarily be the case with every company, but we are acutely aware that some people may take opportunities to do things that they would not normally get away with.
It is important to have economic leadership, and that has been shown this morning. In his statement, the Minister said that it will be difficult to maintain past levels of inward investment. That could be an important turning point for Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that it is more important to increase self-sufficiency in Northern Ireland’s industrial base and local industry? There are three matters that must be addressed: first, the desperate need to make Northern Ireland self-sufficient in renewable energies such as wind; secondly, the need to promote industries such as textiles, ship building and food processing that Northern Ireland is good at and has a reputation for; and thirdly the need to support more local entrepreneurship. Does the Minister agree?
Sir Reg Empey:
It was clear before 11 September that this financial year was going to be more difficult for inward investment than the last financial year. It can be seen from the deal flow that inward investment to the entire European Union and to the United Kingdom as a whole has dropped. Inevitably, inward investment to Northern Ireland will follow a similar pattern. That does not mean that we give up. We still need direct foreign investment because that broadens the base of our economy and we get skills, expertise and access to markets that we would not otherwise achieve. However, we must stimulate and assist local indigenous business as much as possible. I have often made it clear that we follow those twin tracks at all times.
The Member mentioned other issues that affect the economy — energy, the traditional sectors and support to local businesses. She is aware that we have been very active on the energy front and that there is much to do this year. I am acutely aware of the necessity to ensure that energy is competitively priced and that the supply is secure. On the latter point, the security of supply is rapidly improving. By the end of this year or the beginning of next, the supply will be even more secure with the opening of the Scottish interconnector.
As far as our own industries are concerned, we encourage the traditional sectors to become more competitive. The Member is well aware that the Kurt Salmon report on textiles has been implemented. As a result, there have recently been some positive announcements.
We continue to support local businesses because a decline in inward investment often means a decline in local investment. We can continue to improve the economic infrastructure; recent decisions on gas and roads are examples of that.
All these problems must be dealt with across the board.
The Minister will recall meeting my Colleague Tom Hamilton and me to discuss the problems of the Bombardier Shorts plant in Newtownards, as well as the overall employment situation in the borough of Ards.
Will the Minister confirm that he will do everything to facilitate further employment in the Ards borough area? Will he take note that we appreciate very much the support of Bombardier Shorts for Northern Ireland, not only in Newtownards but also in Belfast and in Castlereagh? It has provided thousands of jobs for people from our constituency.
It is regrettable that we have lost both British Airways and Aer Lingus. Does the Minister recall that not too long ago there were flights from Belfast only to Gatwick and Heathrow airports? Now we have flights to five London airports. There have been some advances. Other airlines now fly from Belfast International Airport to other London airports.
Can the Minister state whether there will be future problems for employment in industries connected with the aircraft industry in Northern Ireland?
Sir Reg Empey:
The Member will be aware that I have played what part I could to assist the borough of Ards in its difficulties, starting with the textile sector. A group set up with the local authority and my Department’s agencies worked well and achieved considerable success. Several investments in the area have reversed the trend of recent years. However, there is no disguising the fact that one of those successes was increased employment in that area by Bombardier Shorts. Sadly, that gain could be temporarily lost.
There is now more choice of flights to London from Northern Ireland than there was a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, the loss of a national carrier, with its international connections, is very significant. We must acknowledge that that may not necessarily have been brought about by the events of 11 September but might have been in the pipeline for some time.
We have encouraged and have tried to grow clusters in several areas. The aerospace sector is one that we have been happy to see grow. A consortium of aerospace companies has been formed in Northern Ireland; it has been very successful, going to air shows, attracting business and being aggressive in the marketplace. It has provided an increasing number of high-skill jobs. Approximately 2,000 people are employed in downstream companies, and we will see to what extent they will be affected.
Some of them have broadened their customer base and are not exclusively confined to one company such as Bombardier Shorts. Some of them have opened contacts in mainland Europe and are supplying manufacturers in other areas. Therefore the issue must be approached company by company; there is no single answer. However, I assure the Member that we are acutely aware of the issue, and we will contact the companies that seek assistance.
Although the Minister’s prompt response is welcomed, the doleful contents of the statement are hardly an occasion for joy. In reply to the leader of the Alliance Party, the Minister said that although Northern Ireland is limited because it is a small regional economy, it is not entirely powerless.
Rather than giving us ideas — perhaps more properly described as suggestions — will the Minister tell us what he, the Assembly and the Executive can do? We should bear in mind that the beef and pig industries were not saved by the Assembly; the textile industry has been decimated; and heavy engineering, which Ms Morrice suggested should be resuscitated, is really on a temporary life-support system. Will the Minister please tell us, in concrete and definitive terms, what the Assembly is empowered to do? Members know that most of the effects of this downturn are outside the power of the Assembly; indeed, many of them are outside the power of central Government. It was suggested that the Minister should visit the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was unable to avert massive redundancies in his own constituency; what will he do for Northern Ireland?
Sir Reg Empey:
One must strike a balance between saying "woe is me" and "it is someone else’s problem — we can do nothing about it". Northern Ireland is a small regional economy. Due to globalisation and the fact that the corporations that we are dealing with operate on an intercontinental basis, what one can do is inevitably limited. There are several issues. For example, if the fallout of globalisation is the rationalisation of production units, a competition inevitably ensues between regions or countries over where the units will be based. We can have a direct influence on that.
There has been an international downturn in textiles. If the Assembly does nothing, that decline will accelerate. However, we have done something. We have a blueprint and we are working towards it. In the last few weeks, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has supported various amalgamations that will result in stronger production units. They will have the competitive edge to survive, albeit on a smaller scale.
In the heavy engineering sector, one or two companies would undoubtedly be closed today had it not been for our institutions. That does not mean that the problem is solved, or that they will survive. Nevertheless, if they are open, there is a chance to improve them and to give them breathing space to compete.
There are indeed limits to what the Prime Minister can do. However, everybody plays a part. When a company operates in a particular region, it is influenced by the attitude of the people in that region. Companies are influenced by the attitude of the regional government and by what it offers. To put it bluntly, it is often an auction. We may not like that, but it is true.
We must decide, as a community, whether we shall be included and whether we shall be able to judge what is in our best interests with regard to the disbursement of public funds. It is better that we have that opportunity. If we had had no meaningful representation, and if we had left it to others to make the decisions for us, there would be many more empty holes in the ground than there are at present.
I thank the Minister for his statement and I regret the circumstances in which he has had to make it. As the Minister is aware, the north-west is trying to overcome job losses in the textile industry. Maydown Precision Engineering Ltd, formerly Molins Tobacco Machinery Ltd, is one of the key component suppliers for Bombardier Shorts in Belfast. There is concern that the downturn in business for Bombardier Shorts will have a knock-on effect on that company. Maydown Precision Engineering Ltd has managed to turn itself into a very competitive company over the years, through training and reskilling. Will the Minister assure me that any planned retraining or support will be made available to that company and to others in the north-west?