Economy Minister Conor Murphy has said the presence of former civil servant Sue Gray should mean Northern Ireland has a “friend in court” in a future Labour government.

Ms Gray, now Labour Party chief of staff, served as permanent secretary in the Department of Finance, including a period in which Mr Murphy was finance minister.

Newry and Armagh MLA Mr Murphy was asked about the implications of a Labour government for NI at the launch of the 2024 Belfast Telegraph Top 100 Companies.

He said he did not think the public finances for NI would be any better in a Labour administration but that they would not be any worse.

Mr Murphy said the Conservative government of the past 14 years had reduced public spending, hitting NI hard.

“That has been enormously challenging,” he said.

“And the Conservatives brought us Brexit. And in the past four or five years, they brought us enormous dysfunction.”

Mr Murphy said frequent changes of Prime Minister in the past few years had brought difficulties: “Every time we went, we had a new person to deal with, so it was very difficult to keep track with who was in office and who was moving on.”

And he claimed decisions by the UK Government on levelling up and the Shared Prosperity Fund meant power to receive European money and distribute it has been removed from the Executive.

“The outcome was very clearly that there hadn’t been a huge amount of research put into what was needed and where it was needed,” he explained.

“That was very difficult. We had no real certainty as to how that funding was being delivered.

“I’m fairly certain that there’s going to be a change in government… I don’t expect to see a huge change in public finances, unfortunately.”

He said party colleague and Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald would pick up with the Treasury under a new government, after last month signing an interim fiscal framework securing a commitment to a review of how the Executive is funded.

“I suspect we’ll get more of a hearing in that regard,” he continued, “but whether we get a substantial change in terms of public finance… I hope we do. I’d hope for some stability and some extra money.”

He also said he hoped that Sue Gray’s presence in the Labour Party, where she was appointed chief of staff in autumn 2023, would be a help to Northern Ireland.

As well as serving as a senior civil servant in NI and Whitehall, she previously worked as a landlady in a bar outside Newry in the 1980s.

Mr Murphy added: “With Sue Gray, who was previously from here and is now part of that leader’s office… I think at least we have a friend in court, so we can certainly have access [via] that directly to Downing Street.

“In that regard, it can’t be any worse, [but] I certainly hope it will be a little bit better.”

He also welcomed changes at economic development agency Invest NI, which was the subject of a review by Sir Michael Lyons in 2022. A new chief executive and chairman have now been appointed to lead the organisation.

Mr Murphy added: “Like other Executive departments, the Economy portfolio faces difficult challenges brought on by pressures on the budget.

“But I will continue to work constructively with what I have and am developing actions which will move us in the right direction.

“Over the coming weeks and months the department will launch local economic plans backed up by a restructure of Invest NI to strengthen regional offices.”