Ulster: what's behind grim job outlook

Leading Northern Ireland economists say that it is hard to find much light amid the grim forecasts for Ulster in the '80s.

Prof. William Black, of the Applied Economics Department at Queen's University, Belfast, expects unemployment levels of around 20 percent for the next decade. He doubts that local manufacturing industry can recover significantly even if and when the British economy begins to improve.

Another prominent economist, Prof. Desmond Rea of the Ulster Polytechnic, agrees.

''I don't see any light to relieve the gloom,'' he says. ''Peace is an urgent prerequisite to an industrial recovery so that new investment can be attracted. But while the strife continues this will not come.''

''We also need a local form of government,'' he adds, referring to London's failure to persuade local politicians to reconcile their differences in reconvening an Ulster legislature. ''But as an American reporter noted on local television recently, 'We are a stubborn people.' ''

Professor Black, writing in the latest edition of the quarterly magazine, The Irish Banking Review, has revealed that employment in the manufacturing sector has dropped by 40 percent since 1966. In the past three years more than 110 ''substantial'' manufacturing plants have closed, and many smaller closures may have gone unrecorded.

Why such a gloomy economic picture for Northern Ireland?

There are many reasons: Intense overseas competition is contracting some traditional Ulster industries like shipping. The linen industry is being replaced by synthetic fibers. Agriculture is losing its manpower. Even the man-made fiber industry, which was healthy in the '60s, has been hard hit by soaring oil prices and stiff competition.

Making matters worse, as workers are laid off from outmoded industries, new ones are not moving in to reemploy them, despite attractive investment packages.

Add to all this the current British government's policy of declining subsidies to ailing industries, and the outlook to most observers and experts is bleak indeed.

Professor Black questions the government's economic strategy in trying to promote a recovery. Many industrialists, he claims, would respond to measures encouraging greater enterprise. But he doubts if there are enough potential expansion points in the existing framework to sustain a recovery.

He notes that some of the major firms like Imperial Chemical Industries and Courtaulds might have provided new opportunities because of their technological advancement, but that they had in fact closed.UFquote'If we had stability on the political and security fronts we would be a thousand times better placed. . .'

This was due partly to the prevailing recession and to stiff overseas competition in the man-made fiber industry.

The majority of surviving jobs are in the older-established firms but they appear to have a limited growth capacity. Some 90,000 jobs have been lost since the mid-'50s, despite government attempts to encourage expansion and to help smaller firms. Professor Black also predicted that traditional Ulster industries such as shipbuilding and clothing were likely to face continental and strong overseas competition. This point was borne out recently by Albert Austin, chairman of the Northern Ireland Shirt Manufacturers' Federation, who said that the local outlook was bleak if imports from developed countries were not curbed.

Professor Black concluded, in a report of scarcely relieved gloom, that the main hope of recovery would come from the manufacturing plants that survive the recession, and not from the service industry. But he noted that such a recovery, if it materialized at all, would at best be a pause in the decline in manufacturing that has taken place in Northern Ireland in the past 12 years.

So far, the government has not given a detailed public reaction to the report , though one spokesman pointed out that James Prior, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland had made the Ulster economy a ''priority.''

Mr. Prior, a politcal heavyweight at Westminster who retains a place on the Cabinet's Economics Committee, already has used his influence to obtain an extra unemployment lines, in a province where unemployment is now at 19 percent.

Last year some 15,000 jobs were lost, and industrialists are not hopeful about 1982. Richard Gordon, Northern Ireland director of the employers' organization, the Confederation of British Industry, told the Monitor: ''We can't see any great improvement in the employment position this year. If we had stability on the political and security fronts we would be a thousand times better placed to attract whatever overseas investment that is available.''

Meanwhile, the outcome of crucial talks in London could decide the size of future production of De Lorean sports cars at the Dunmurry factory near Belfast. A short statement from the government's Export Credit Guarantee Department after the Jan. 18 talks said simply that ''further useful discussions'' had taken place. It added that, ''as with all meetings of this kind,'' the details were confidential.

However De Lorean representatives were believed to have pressed their claim for some $80 million in guarantees to help overcome increasing cash flow difficulties.

The important London meeting followed months of negotiations, and at a time when production has been halved from 400 to 200 cars a week. Although the company resumed five-day working Jan. 18 from a three-day week, about 400 workers, mostly on night-shift, have been laid off for the rest of this week.

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