How we squandered our peace dividend

mtlogoThere is little doubt that in many respects Northern Ireland has never had it so good: unemployment rates are 4.5% (pdf), just below the UK’s average of 5.1%. The sense of settled well-being arising is most palpable in areas of traditional high unemployment like the Bogside in Derry.

Disputes erupt every so often about the trend of higher Catholic unemployment, but we’re in a different territory from the 80% unemployed heads of households that held for some considerable time in the Ballymurphy in the early 1980s.

And yet, it is being repeated in various interesting places that the Northern Ireland economy is a basket case.

The most comprehensive a detailed expression of this view comes from Sunday Times journalist, Alan Ruddock’s feature in this month’s Management Today: in the magazine the article comes with a box full of illustrative stats.

The Republic currently has a quarter of a million entreprenuers; Northern Ireland 71,000. Does it make a difference? Well in 2005 Northern Ireland created a modest 10,000 new jobs. The Republic brought in ten times that amount.

Reader Nestor, picks out one particularly relevant part:

“[…] Worryingly, too, the politics of the province remain mired in confrontation and mistrust, with no immediate prospect of resolution. When Northern Ireland seeks new investors, it cannot present a united front. Its politicians have refused to take the lead, preferring to play out their tribal differences while ignoring the economic opportunities.

Their shortsightedness has cost the province dear. Concessions that could have been extracted from the British government and the EU in the immediate afterglow of the Good Friday Agreement have been missed. The failure to deliver political progress has worn patience thin in London and Brussels, and now Northern Ireland must plot an economic future through less conciliatory territory.

Goliath and Samson, the two giant shipyard cranes, still stand in testimony to the industrial might that Belfast once wielded, while the new Titanic Quarter provides a template for the future. Getting there, however, will be painful. The state’s enforced retreat from Northern Ireland’s economy, spurred by the Treasury’s need for cash as the UK slows, threatens powerful deflationary pressures that will need to be offset by a sharp rise in local output.

So far, consumed by internal wrangling and overtaken by the Republic’s economic surge, Ulster has exhibited few signs that it can rise to the challenge. The peace dividend, which was meant to re-energise the province, has gone south.”

There are signs that some individuals within local political circles are beginning to heed warnings about the traditional Northern Irish short termist approach. Turning this economic stasis (currently priced at between £5 and 6 Million per anum at the UK exchequer) threatens to overshadow any strong concerns about the constitutional question.

Two other figures worth quoting (pdf): 14.8% of the NI workforce are graduates, compared with a UK average of 17.5%. More tellingly, less than half of NI’s graduates (47%) work in the private sector compared with 3/4 of non graduates. Our graduates are disproportionately working in the civil service. That’s a pattern more common to the developing world than a modern western economy.

The trouble is, this is a long term problem. People are comfortable and politicians are notoriously bad at taking a strategic view and moving forward. The first step might be getting our politicians back to gainful employment.

But with each to the two main parties seemingly more comfortable with tedious rounds of political chicken than actually addressing real world issues, don’t hold your breath!!

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty