Ben Quinn, discusses the challenges in creating a vibrant economic future for Northern Ireland.
Even the most optimistic observer must regard the future of the Northern Irish economy with a sense of trepidation. Although the region has emerged from its violent past with ambition and created a peaceful post conflict state, there are still structural divides embedded within a society which has yet to achieve full reconciliation. ‘Shared but separate’ is the modus operandi and it is creating economic barriers which have become the region’s socio-economic idiosyncrasies. Constricted by fears and inhibitions echoing from a bleak past, Northern Ireland is in a state of economic stagnation. The problems are compounded by the current global economic climate. Urgent action is required to address division as it is hindering the nation’s economic growth which, after all, can offer unilateral change that the still thawing hostilities of the Executive clearly cannot.
Education is the life blood of Knowledge Economies and our leaders must be more progressive in their approach to education. A better education system is essential if the Northern Irish economy is to grow. The Executive must encourage increased integration in the education system. From the earliest age, the people of Northern Ireland must be allowed to experience life together, rather than separately. It is difficult to justify segregation, especially when one looks to other post conflict nations which have enjoyed economic success. Diversity improves ideas, offers stronger teams of individuals and creates unique opportunities for personal and professional learning and development. Successful businesses strive for maximum diversity in their labour force and management units because research shows it creates the highly motivated, highly talented teams needed for competitiveness. There is little to be gained from division. More than ever before, the Northern Irish economy needs more inspired talent and so we must inspire our youth. I do not believe we can do this by regurgitating the same tired doctrines of division that have prevailed so far in our post conflict history. If an integrated education system was in place, would it be ridiculous to think that young Northern Irish people would re-imagine our small nation and a truly shared culture would emerge? This grass roots approach would in turn inspire a pride in a new Northern Ireland which would eventually manifest itself in successful Northern Irish enterprises supporting the Northern Irish public sector.
Northern Ireland must push for a corporation tax cut which will stimulate the economy, attract Foreign Direct Investment and encourage our talented individuals to stay in Northern Ireland rather than seek highly skilled jobs elsewhere. Northern Ireland must be allowed to increase its competitiveness in this way, and offer an alternative option to multinationals both in the Republic of Ireland and the mainland UK. This is a matter of urgency. Large corporations are not exclusively responsible for increased GDP, yet the skills and knowledge they require and inspire attracts talent and increases opportunities for local SME’s. There are signs that the seeds of economic change are beginning to take root. First Derivatives has enjoyed success after locating in Newry. The First and Deputy First Minister are soon to embark upon a visit to China seeking to enhance educational and economic links with a rapidly expanding economy. A corporation tax cut would undoubtedly act as a catalyst for these growth opportunities. The Executive must have the confidence to pursue the tax cut by negotiating its terms with Downing Street. It is in the interests of Downing Street to award the tax break as it would mean the £10 billion pounds the UK government supplies to Northern Ireland each year would be decreased, freeing up much needed capital for England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland must gain some semblance of economic sovereignty and set our corporation tax at a desirable level, possibly even below the 12.5% in the Republic of Ireland.
If Northern Ireland is to build a stronger economy, tough questions must be addressed. A renewed focus is needed – what is best for Northern Ireland, not Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Union or Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland. The opportunities are available to the county, yet better, more inspired leadership is needed from all institutions within Northern Ireland. Rather than rhetoric in Stormont, tangible benefits must be offered to the people. Flagship events such as Derry/Londonderry’s City of Culture, the opening of Titanic Quarter and the “Our Time – 2012” campaign must, of course, be enthusiastically welcomed, yet they are insufficient to guarantee lasting change. Tackling structural divisions, such as the polarisation of the education system will do much more to stimulate the economy in the long run. The Executive must be stronger in its pursuit of a corporation tax cut. A new era of Northern Irish economic confidence must be ushered into existence so that a balanced, sophisticated nation can emerge and do what a state must do – provide for its citizens.