Northern Ireland

2015: Economics and business in review

NAMA

It was a year of corporate intrigue, mainly relating to the aftermath of Northern Ireland's biggest ever property deal.

In July the independent TD Mick Wallace stood up in the Dáil and made an extraordinary allegation relating to the £1.2bn sale of Nama's Northern Ireland property loan portfolio.

He claimed that a Northern Ireland politician was to have been paid £7m in the aftermath of that deal with the money routed through an Isle of Man bank account.

That has set off a criminal investigation, a Stormont inquiry, hearings in the Dáil, and a subpoena in New York.

No evidence has been produced that a politician was to benefit and all parties involved have denied any wrongdoing.

But we have learned much about the conduct of that deal, including high level political involvement, potential conflicts of interest and a dispute at the top of a leading law firm.

'Ingrained culture'

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Media captionGareth Graham said the tapes showed an "ingrained culture of inappropriate and possibly illegal conduct"

We also learned from one witness to the Stormont inquiry, Gareth Graham, that he has hundreds of hours of recorded phone calls.

He claims these show "an ingrained culture of inappropriate and quite possibly illegal business conduct that stretches across political, legal, banking and accountancy sectors."

There was another (unrelated) shock in Belfast in November when four senior partners from KPMG were arrested in connection with suspected tax evasion.

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Media captionThe men were detained by HMRC officials at KPMG's Belfast offices

They have not been charged and are on "administrative leave".

One of them is Eamonn Donaghy, who just two weeks earlier had been celebrating victory in his role as a campaigner to devolve corporation tax.

Fresh Start

The 'Fresh Start' deal meant the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed a 'date and a rate' for the tax cut - 12.5% in April 2018.

The deal, which included a bit of extra money from Westminster, also included agreement on welfare reform which put Stormont's budget onto a stable footing.

But the public finances remain under pressure with some non-protected departments facing cuts of more than 5% when a new budget is passed in January.

That austerity is expected to act as a brake on economic growth in 2016.

Recovery did continue in 2015, albeit in unspectacular fashion - growth was probably round about 2%.

Unemployment continued downwards, construction finally bounced off the bottom and wages showed their first real increase since the crash.

Manufacturing

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Media captionMichelin staff spoke following news of the plant closure

However manufacturing, which has been a bright spot in recent years, came under pressure, in part influenced by global factors.

The biggest blow was the announcement that the Michelin plant in Ballymena will close with the loss of 900 jobs.

Northern Ireland's biggest manufacturing employer, the aerospace firm Bombardier, had another tough year and its C Series project got a state bailout in Canada.

It says it needs to cut costs in Northern Ireland by 20%, and with workers rejecting changes to pay and conditions, more job losses can't be ruled out.

Digital

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Media captionUTV's share prices rose sharply following the sales announcement

The digital economy continues to surge and most notable in 2015 was the flotation of Belfast software firm Kainos.

It has carved out a profitable niche writing and managing the software for a range of public bodies.

The firm is well its way to 1,000 employees and the most senior staff became millionaires as a result of the float.

Other notable deals in 2015 included Moy Park being sold by one Brazilian firm to another for £900m; UTV's sale of its TV assets to ITV, and Ulster Bank clearing the last of property crash wreckage in the Project Rathlin deal.

2016

Looking ahead to 2016 it's our neighbours to the south who could help soften the blow of austerity.

The Republic of Ireland is Northern Ireland's biggest export partner and its economy is surging.

The composition of that growth matters - consumer and business spending looks to be coming back and that means opportunities for more cross border trade.

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