Economy Minister Gordon Lyons has pledged to provide certainty in the coming days about Invest NI’s ability to support new business ventures in Northern Ireland.
Gordon Lyons was commenting on the financial situation that has forced Stormont’s business development agency to suspend fresh offers of financial support to investors.
The suspension was put in place late last year amid uncertainty over Invest NI’s budget for the next financial year.
Mr Lyons said he hoped Invest NI would be able to resume making offers, but added a process of prioritisation would be needed.
Stormont’s draft budget for the next three years prioritised spending on the health service, resulting in other departments receiving less than they would have expected.
The Department for the Economy is also facing a further funding shortfall due to the loss of EU grants after Brexit.
Funding previously provided by Europe, which would have bolstered Invest NI’s budget, has not been fully replaced by the UK Government.
Uncertainty over budgetary issues intensified with the collapse of the Executive earlier this month when the DUP’s Paul Givan resigned as first minister in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Without a functioning administration, a budget for next year cannot be struck and departments face the prospect of relying on emergency arrangements to continue spending in April.
Asked about the uncertainty at Invest NI on Monday, Mr Lyons blamed Finance Minister Conor Murphy and his draft budget.
“One of the difficulties and one of the reasons why we’re in this situation is because of the draft budget that was put forward by Conor Murphy that leads to, I believe, a long-term inability to do the job that Invest NI needs to do,” he said.
“I hope that we can give certainty to Invest NI and I hope in the coming days that I will be able to provide that certainty and clarity to Invest NI so that they can move forward and continue to offer financial support.
“Clearly we will need to be in the process of prioritising some of the business that we support.
“However, it’s not just the financial support that we give that’s important for business in Northern Ireland, it’s the skills and talent of our people, it’s the cost of doing business, the ease of doing business.
“You only have to look at 1,100 other companies that have come here and have decided to set up and to continue and to reinvest because of the environment that we have and because of how good a place this is to do business.
“So I understand the importance of financial support, it is one of the tools in our tool box. I want to make sure that we can use that and use it effectively.”
Asked if certainty would come before May’s Assembly election, Mr Lyons added: “I believe that that certainty can come before and I hope to be able to make an announcement on that in the coming days.”
Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd said the actions of the DUP were contributing to the problems at Invest NI.
“It is extremely frustrating that Invest NI have stopped offering funding for new projects that enable people to start their own business and create jobs,” he said.
“This is a result of the DUP’s reckless walk out of the Executive, coupled with loss of EU funding, which has paralysed economic investment and is preventing job creation.
“The DUP are blocking a three-year budget that would also recruit more doctors and nurses, tackle waiting lists, fund cancer and mental health services and transform health.
“They are putting their own selfish, electoral interests over the needs of ordinary people and the economy. They should get back to work.”