Diane Dodds: Economy committee chair Caoimhe Archibald 'not entitled to her own facts'

Minister Dodds (centre) at the launch of the 10X plan with (from left) Steve Orr (Catalyst), Kirsty McManus (IoD), Dr Jayne Brady (digital innovation commissioner) Michael Ryan (Spirit AeroSystems) and Dr Joanne Stuart (NI Tourism Alliance)
Diane Dodds

PERHAPS as we edge closer to an Assembly election we should expect the kind of article submitted from Caoimhe Archibald (Business Insight May 11).

The economy committee chair is, of course, entitled to her own view. But as the famous quote goes, she is not entitled to her own facts.

From the first moment the severity of the pandemic became clear, my Department was the first out of the blocks to deliver unprecedented levels of bespoke financial support schemes, protecting businesses and saving tens of thousands of jobs.

To date, we have provided nearly half a billion pounds to over 32,000 businesses, including the £10,000 Small Business Support Grant which Dr Archibald referenced but failed to mention was a DfE scheme.

Seven other essential support schemes were developed and delivered in unprecedented turnaround times. Invest Northern Ireland also introduced new schemes to support business, Tourism NI weighed in with support for that sector and we also provided much needed support for higher and further education students.

Quite rightly, given the scale of the emergency, the response required a collective Executive response. But while others tried to shirk responsibility, we stepped up. In addition to providing financial supports, I developed a series of policy documents and action plans.

My Economic Recovery Action Plan (ERAP), launched in February, supported by industry and backed by the Executive to the tune of £286.8 million, is an ambitious suite of decisive actions to kick start recovery.

The High Street Stimulus scheme will provide up to 1.4 million people with a pre-paid card worth £100 - injecting an £140m directly on to our high streets, and of course the multiplier impact of this scheme will see even more money spent in local retail, hospitality and other sectors.

I also announced the Holiday at Home Voucher scheme which will allow households to claim back up to £100 on a stay in Northern Ireland.

However, ERAP goes far beyond these innovative stimulus schemes. It will deliver a multi-faceted approach to recovery which brings in skills, innovation and the green economy, including the development of a flexible skills fund; widening access to apprenticeships by removing the age cap; developing proposals to implement an artificial intelligence centre of excellence; accelerating delivery of City and Growth Deals which will inject over £1.5bn into our economy; and developing a green innovation challenge fund.

The roll out of Project Stratum, bringing next-generation broadband to over 75,000 homes and businesses, will also be vital in accelerating recovery.

I successfully lobbied the UK government for the extension of the furlough and self-employed support schemes. I worked with many sectors and Executive colleagues to ensure the safe easing of restrictions as early as possible. I led the way on reopening non-essential retail, tourism and hospitality and close contact services.

Last week, I launched “10X Economy: An Economic Vision for a decade of innovation” which aims to place Northern Ireland among the world’s most competitive small economies and to make a lasting, positive difference to people’s lives.

Just like the ERAP, 10X Economy vision has been welcomed by a cross section of our entrepreneurs and innovators. It sets out a path to success built around focussing on our global strengths, investing in our people, strengthening our innovation ecosystem, maximising funding and embracing Northern Ireland as a world class visitor destination.

Nobody can credibly argue that DFE has underperformed. Politics is politics, but when we reflect on how various departments responded to the pandemic, I am very confident that mine will compare favourably to most.

:: Diane Dodds is Stormont economy minister

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