Paul Frew: The libertarian electrician now charged with sparking the north's economic recovery
THERE may be signs of green shoots in the economy, but for the man charged with spearheading its recovery, significant challenges lie ahead.
On the libertarian end of the DUP and a natural back-bencher, Paul Frew will now be responsible for leading that recovery with a department suffering from a high staff vacancy rate.
What he has going for him, is real world knowledge of business and the private sector.
The son of a lorry driver turned newsagent, the Broughshane MLA spent 20 years as an electrician and foreman, and once quipped that his ‘university’ was the building sites of Belfast.
As familiar as he is with negotiating scaffolding, the 46-year-old now takes charge of the economic recovery effort as the UK Government prepares to dismantle the scaffolding and supports propping up the north’s economy since March 2020.
The furlough scheme will begin winding down next month, with all support due to be withdrawn by the end of September. The last official count from HMRC showed 90,000 jobs still registered under the scheme at the end of April.
An escalation in redundancies appears inevitable in the second half of 2021.
Protections around company insolvency will be also begin winding down from July 1, with analysts warning of a surge in business failures.
The incoming economy minister appears well aware of what lies ahead.
Perhaps with his new job in mind (and possibly his seven years as a part-time RIR soldier), Paul Frew told an assembly budgetary debate on Monday that the economy is in “a phoney war period”, warning that “business is on life support”.
As a self-professed libertarian, Mr Frew no doubt has his own views on the economy. He appears to have strong views on energy policy, particularly around Irish state-owned Eirgrid's involvement with the Northern Ireland electricity grid.
We know he’s not a fan of lockdowns. As recently as yesterday, he told the assembly that restrictions should never be classed as the default position.
“We should always strive to remove them, where and when we can, in order to allow people to live their lives and get on with their business."
He tweeted on Tuesday that he hopes to outline his own economic plans “very soon”.
Whether he takes his cue from Diane Dodds remains to be seen.
The outgoing minister was in mid-flow rolling out a series of new strategic papers for various aspects of the economy over the next 10 years when she was cut off at the knees.
Unlike the incumbent, Paul Frew won't have £1 billion of extra cash from London to save businesses from dying.
But what he can thank Diane Dodds for is a freshly printed 29-page economic action plan, which the executive has already agreed to fund to the tune of £270 million.
The greater part of that plan involves the £140m high street voucher scheme, due to roll out in September.
For a party in dire need of some positive PR, a £100 cash card in the pocket of every adult in Northern Ireland can’t come soon enough.