Ex senior civil servant accuses DUP of economic vandalism…

Civil servants are renowned for saying nothing, so when one breaks ranks to give their honest views, you sit up and take notice.

Colin Lewis is a retired senior civil servant, most recently as Deputy Permanent Secretary at the Department for Economy. Writing in today’s BelTel he is not impressed with the DUP. From the article:

A developing local business and education story over recent weeks caused me to try and interpret the DUP’s ‘cunning plan’ by which it is refusing to re-enter government because of the NI Protocol. Although I tried to think it rationally and logically through, it did not take long for me to conclude that there seemed to be little logic in it at all, and that it was indeed something that could very easily be taken from Baldrick’s implausibility playbook.

The story in question is the speculation that approximately 300 redundancies will have to be made by our six further education colleges (combined) in order for them to be able to manage budget cuts allocated by the Department for the Economy, thereby allowing them to live within their means. While the cuts are the product of a ‘departmental’ budget allocation directed by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, it is certainly not unreasonable to conclude that their genesis can be traced back to the fact that there is no sitting Executive.

However, on further reflection, it seems to me that since 2019 the DUP has shown increasing signs of gradually ‘falling out of love’ with the economy portfolio. Perhaps it was the extraordinarily damaging fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive debacle. Perhaps it was the realisation that post-Brexit it would have to ‘sell’ the economic benefits of dual market access, which was seemingly not easily compatible with its political ideology and stance.

Certainly, in the run up to Brexit the DUP admitted that a no-deal Brexit could hurt Northern Ireland’s economy, with some 40,000 job losses being quoted. Perhaps, this was code that the long term challenge was not for them. Also, at the beginning of 2022, the Economy Minister, Gordon Lyons MLA commissioned an independent review of the management and performance of the DUP’s normally dependable ‘golden ticket’, Invest NI, a decision that I venture would never have been considered prior to 2019.

And now, as a direct consequence of its inaction, it would appear that our further education colleges, through absolutely no fault of their own, have no alternative but to seek redundancies in order to manage within their reduced budget allocations. They simply cannot spend money that they do not have.

This appears, perhaps unsurprisingly, to have caused tensions between the Department for the Economy, the college employers, and trade unions; tensions that are being laid bare in the press. But let’s be abundantly clear about this, all three are not to blame for this act of economic vandalism and insanity. It is a direct consequence of the fact that there is currently no power-sharing Executive in place.

A few short weeks ago in an opinion piece in this newspaper, I questioned the ability of our political class to create the pro-business environment necessary to attract higher quality investment downstream. This was in the context of the U.S. business delegation visit to Northern Ireland led by the U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Joe Kennedy III. I concluded that the delegation was more likely to leave Northern Ireland somewhat bewildered as to why our politicians do not see the potential economic upside that would arise from the restoration of stable government.

If indeed they had such concerns, they will now for sure be dismayed to learn that one of the key building blocks that is fundamental to rebuilding and growing our economy – that is investment in skills – is being undermined. I am sure Mr Kennedy must be ‘pulling his hair out’ as a result of this monumental act of economic self-harm, especially given that as part of his visit the US-owned Bank of America announced a major investment in Belfast Metropolitan College to fund a new skills scheme to assist 600 people from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

On final reflection, there is actually nothing cunning at all about the DUP’s plan. It is just plain stupid.

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