The North’s first programme for government aimed at boosting investment and employment was overshadowed this week by the announcement that over 900 jobs have been lost in a County Derry plant closure.
Some 913 workers are to be made redundant at the Seagate plant in Limavady after it was announceed that production would move to a plant in Malaysia. The company’s 1,381 workers at Seagate’s nearby plant in Derry city are as yet unaffected.
Dr William O’Kane, plant manager at the Limavady operation, said that there was work in Limavady for “at least the next two to three quarters”, at which point Seagate would start to scale back its operation.
“The decision simply came down to cost,” he said. “It was simply no longer viable to continue to challenge an equivalent operation in the Far East, where they have a significant cost advantage relative to Limavady.”
Seagate is the largest private-sector manufacturer in the northwest, with workers drawn from a large catchment area including counties Antrim, Derry, Tyrone and Donegal. Some employees travel across Lough Foyle by ferry to work at the plant.
Seagate has received more than $30 million in aid from the British government’s Invest Northern Ireland agency since 1993, when the factory was set up, and over $3 million in the past year alone.
It was estimated locally that such was the scale of the Seagate job losses that the local unemployment rate could double at a stroke.
Sinn Féin Assembly member for East Derry, Francie Brolly described the news as “devastating”.
“This is but the latest example of globalisation and competition from emerging economies for industries at the lower end of the wage spectrum,” he said.
‘The remedy for this is for government, universities and commerce to combine their efforts to development and produce the workforce with the high level of skills and expertise that will attract the high powered jobs that are not susceptible to such market forces.”
The decision marks a serious blow for the northern Executive’s programme for government, unveiled at the Belfast Assembly last Thursday.
That had placed the creation of 6,500 manufacturing jobs by 2011 and the establishment of a “private, wealth-creating manufacturing base” as its first objective, with 600 companies expected to become exporters for the first time in the same period.
The North’s Draft Investment Strategy will see 5.6 billion pounds spent on infrastructure projects in the next three years, including schemes linked to the ageing water and sewerage systems and also to key cross-Border transport links as well as communications links within the Six Counties.
The North’s Minister for Finance, the DUP’s Peter Robinson, claimed the economic prospects for the Six Counties were hampered by the inability to exercise fiscal powers especially in relation to business taxation. Mr Robinson told Assembly members “this would have transformed the region’s attractiveness as an investment location”.
Outlining the proposed documents, unanimously agreed by the full Executive, deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin said: over the next ten years “we plan to invest 18 billion pounds towards ensuring we have the infrastructure we need to deliver for all our people.
“In the next three years we will invest 25% more in infrastructure than the Direct Rule regime did in the last three years. The Executive is making a real difference.”
Amid increasing tension within the multi-party Executive, the nationalist SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party were accused this week of being in denial about recent election results in the North of Ireland.
The parties were labelled ‘whingers’ by Sinn Féin Assembly member John O’Dowd after they claimed at the Ulster Unionist conference on Saturday that his party and the Ian Paisley’s DUP were trying to operate a cartel at the heart of the Northern Executive.
Mr O’Dowd said: “It seems that both the SDLP and UUP are living in an arrogant fantasy world of political denial.
“They seem to want to try and control the political agenda while at the same time failing to recognise that the political reality has changed significantly since the last Executive was in place,” he added.
The power-sharing executive currently comprises five DUP cabinet ministers and one junior minister, four Sinn Féin ministers and a junior, two Ulster Unionist ministers and one SDLP minister.