Food industry can help Northern Ireland weather economic storm

Not since the Great Frost of 1709,when the Thames froze over, have we endured such an economic downturn
Denis Lynn

THE deepest recession since the Great Frost of 1709; unemployment worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s; a budget deficit three times larger than the £156 billion we spent most of the last decade paying off . . .

By whichever expert prediction or historical comparison you choose, this Covid-induced economic storm will be incomparable to anything in our lifetimes.

Downturns in productivity over the last two centuries have traditionally been brought about by war, inflationary booms or simple political folly. This slump will be the first in an age to be caused by nature. And while it's already had a seismic impact, the real pain is yet to come.

A new report last week from Ulster University paints a bleak picture of the specific outlook in Northern Ireland. Dr Eoin Magennis, a senior economist at the university's Economic Policy Centre, envisages a £5.4 billion hit to our domestic product - and a jobless rate of 12 per cent.

If you add the number of people likely to be permanently unemployed by the autumn to those who will still be furloughed at that time, it brings you to a total of 250,000 additional people out of work – almost half of all private sector employment in our nation.

Mid Ulster, Newry, Mourne and Down, the Causeway Coast and Glens, and Mid and East Antrim will be worst affected.

For many, this reality has yet to sink in. We are all currently spending less, for there hasn't been much to buy. Barring those recently self-employed or the young working in the gig economy, a majority of workers still have an income thanks to the government's job retention scheme. And a sunnier than usual spring has done its best to keep our morale up.

What too few have realised is the long-term damage that has already been done. Many of those furloughed will be made permanently redundant by October. Social-distancing rules are likely to be ruinous for many pubs, restaurants and retail outlets. Reduced demand will force many businesses to cut costs and downsize operations.

And yet, despite this bleak outlook, Northern Ireland has an ace up its sleeve. Our flourishing food producers and the thousands of people who work in them have made an extraordinary effort to feed the nation during the crisis.

While business with restaurants and hotels has fallen away, the industry has faced unprecedented supermarket demand which has more than made up the difference.

In an ordinary week Finnebrogue Artisan produces 800,000 packs of sausages and burgers. We are now making 1.5 million. And that's without even counting the surge in demand for our nitrite-free Naked Bacon and new plant-based products.

The people who work in our food industry have devoted themselves to an essential national duty – and we cannot thank them enough for everything they have done. They have been simply magnificent in their response.

Their dedication leaves our thriving sector in a rosy state as we approach the turbulence to come; still innovating, still growing, still blazing a trail.

But as the industry continues to put food on the tables of households across all four nations of the United Kingdom – we must now start turning our attention to what role we can play in the Northern Irish recovery.

At Finnebrogue, we are devising plans to further turbo charge our growth and create hundreds of new jobs at our base in Downpatrick. We've gone from employing 40 staff a decade ago to over 700 people today. We can't take our foot off the gas now.

Beyond simply making food, firms like ours must consider the responsibility we have to our communities. They are our staff and our lifeblood. They are also those who we have a duty to support as employers, whether that be through charity, employment or training.

As this storm brews, we must play a more prominent role, not only in driving innovation that will create valuable investment and growth for our local economy, but in providing rewarding employment opportunities to many who will likely find the coming months a real struggle.

We cannot simply turn to government for all of the answers. We must first look to ourselves to reignite the engines of enterprise.

So if you are out of work, looking for your next break and are hungry to succeed, I hope you will consider Northern Ireland's powerhouse food industry as your potential next destination.

It is one of our country's great success stories. We are well prepared for what lies ahead. And at Finnebrogue, we hope to have opportunities aplenty.

:: Denis Lynn is chairman at Finnebrogue Artisan

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