Invest NI: Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 22 March 2022.

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Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP 2:45, 22 March 2022

1. Mrs Barton asked the Minister for the Economy for an update on Invest NI's investment in Fermanagh and South Tyrone over the last three years. (AQO 3233/17-22)

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Invest NI works closely with businesses throughout Fermanagh and South Tyrone to support their growth ambitions whilst also promoting the area as a potential location for inward investors. Invest NI also works closely with Tourism NI and local tourist accommodation providers to realise the economic potential of the area's outstanding natural beauty. Tourism NI has allocated funding of over £811,000 to tourism projects in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency through a number of investment programmes since 2018-19.

Over the last three years for which full performance information is available — 2018-19 to 2020-21 — Invest NI made over 560 offers of support to businesses in the Member's area. Those offers, consisting of over £12·4 million of assistance, will help secure over £61·4 million of total investment and support the creation of nearly 600 jobs.

The financial support that Invest NI has provided in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone area includes not only direct financial support for companies through grants but support for companies that are developing overseas capacity through programmes such as Going Dutch and Grow Beyond, as well as COVID response schemes such as the digital selling capability grant (DSCG) and the process and organisational improvement grant (POIG). My Department was able to provide additional funding through its economic recovery action plan in 2021 to ensure that more businesses in the area were able to benefit from support. That has included support that was offered through the economic recovery innovation grant (ERIG) and the productive investment capital grant (PICG) to invest in innovation, new technologies and processes to improve efficiency and resilience.

Notable recent investments include an 88-job project with local manufacturer Crust and Crumb bakery and support for a 210-job project with Mallaghan Engineering.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Thank you, Minister, for that comprehensive answer. Those investments are all very fine and are very welcome in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. We still have a communication problem owing to the mobile network coverage, however. Can you think of any way in which to put further investment into Fermanagh to try to alleviate that problem?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

The Member is absolutely right to raise the issue of connectivity, because, time and time again, we are told of, and the research demonstrates to us, the importance of good connectivity and how it helps increase business efficiency and helps create more jobs, and more sustainable jobs. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that my Department does all that it can to improve that connectivity.

Project Stratum has been exceptionally helpful. The Member's constituency benefited more than any other, with 13,000 properties benefiting, and I hope that those businesses are taking advantage of that. However, I understand that mobile connectivity is also important, so any way that I can stand ready to help, she can be assured that I will do that.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

In the Enniskillen area alone, Invest NI has around 12·5 acres of land available for investment. However, since 2017, it has hosted only four investor visits. Clearly, that is not good enough. Will the independent review of Invest NI address the patterns of failure of Invest NI to tackle regional imbalances and attract jobs to Fermanagh?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

First of all, I completely disagree with the Member about the so-called failure of Invest NI. You only need to look at the track record of Invest NI right across Northern Ireland and the jobs that it has created through direct assistance and through the many other schemes that have been put in place to help. I have been on trade missions and met companies locally that have all benefited right across Northern Ireland through not just the direct financial assistance and jobs promoted category but others as well. What the Member has said is not right. However, it is an independent review, and I have said to Sir Michael Lyons that I want him to investigate everything that Invest NI does to see how that can be improved on, and I am very open to any recommendations that he brings back.

As the Member said, there is an issue with the land in Enniskillen. I want to make sure that we make use of all the sites that we have, and, where there are potential investment opportunities, we will exploit those. Invest NI is more than willing to bring interested investors to those sites where they are appropriate and where they line up to our ambitions. I encourage the Member to respond to Sir Michael Lyons and his call for evidence, and she can make sure that her particular viewpoint is heard.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

I will take this opportunity to thank the Minister for the support that he has given to local businesses in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The Minister talked about trade missions. Most recently, he visited New York, Maryland and Washington DC to meet US investors. The US is clearly our most important FDI market. Will the Minister share what issues were raised with him? What are the key factors for those who are thinking of investing in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Many new markets are opening up to us, and Northern Ireland companies are investing in them and exporting to them right across the world, but the United States remains an incredibly important market, with billions of pounds' worth of trade and many companies from the United States coming into Northern Ireland. I had the opportunity to meet a number of investors. As a result of our trip, we have provided reassurance to those who are going to invest, and I believe that we will see job announcements coming out of that. Importantly, those are not just, as some would like to say, in the Belfast area. They are right across Northern Ireland, because around 70% of jobs that are created through the work of Invest NI are outside of Belfast, and it is important to keep that in mind.

The Member asked in particular about the areas of interest. We had conversations with investors and government officials in the US about the 10X Economy — those technologies and clusters that we have done really well in, are global leaders in or have the potential to be global leaders in. Those areas of interest are fintech, life and health sciences, and advanced manufacturing. That is why I was so pleased to be able to go out and explain what we have to offer.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Based on the answers that you have given to Members from Fermanagh and South Tyrone and the fact that, in 2020 alone, ten times more jobs were created in Belfast than in my constituency, will the upcoming review of Invest NI deal once and for all with the decades of imbalance west of the Bann? It needs to be tackled for the whole of Northern Ireland because, if parts of our Province are not —

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

— supported, the rest of us will all fail.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

We have had this conversation, a number of times, about the review of Invest NI. The Member knows full well that Invest NI will look at all that: investment west of the Bann, outside Belfast and right across Northern Ireland.

I want to give the Member some good news. Over the last number of weeks, I have had the opportunity, in Northern Ireland, to speak to some foreign direct investors. Invest NI had taken those investors to the north-west and shown them what it has to offer. They are talking very positively about the north-west. Invest NI is doing that work and bringing those investors to the area. I think that we will see good news announcements coming out of that.

I gently encourage the Member to talk up her constituency and city. I do not want someone to be googling the conversations that we have here and getting a negative view about Londonderry and the north-west. There is much that is good happening there and much good work that Invest NI has done and will continue to do.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

As the Minister is aware, a number of the key staff in the London and North America offices of Invest NI have recently resigned. Will the Minister please provide an update on what he anticipates the impact of that will be, particularly on the ability to attract foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

There has been staff turnover, but I have been assured that we have in place the people whom we need to promote Northern Ireland, to continue Invest NI's good record of work and to bring people for visits to Northern Ireland that will develop into investment opportunities.

I take the opportunity to thank the staff, as we come to the end of the mandate, for the work that they have done, often under difficult circumstances. I put on record my thanks to Mel, the interim chief executive, for the work that he does. Invest NI continually meets its targets, and, across the world, it shines the light on Northern Ireland. I had the opportunity to meet some of our fantastic staff based in North America, the Middle East, London and here. They all deserve our thanks for the work that they are doing.