How do we unlock Northern Ireland’s tremendous potential?

sceconomyfinal8_tcm77-354487-2I still remember the spring of 2001. The palpable excitement I felt about something I’d dreamed of since my adolescence and, with sixth form drawing to a close, was finally in a position to realise: leaving Northern Ireland.

I was one of the almost 18,000 who emigrated that year, a number that rose to just over 25,000 in 2012-13. And whereas net migration in Northern Ireland was positive the year I left, it has since turned negative (and skews even more so when you look only at those of working age).

Now I cringe to think of the almost venomous loathing I’d developed for the place of my birth by the time of my departure. Youthful exuberance and, no doubt, immaturity produced a hostility to the province that in hindsight seems more than a little embarrassing.

And yet, disproportionate or not, that hostility was a reaction against a political climate that, from my perspective as an 18-year-old looking to get ahead, choked the life out of any prospect of the kind of opportunity and life quality that I knew was readily available only a plane ride away.

The grass was (much) greener and it still is.

There’s nothing new about this. The ‘brain drain’ debate in Northern Ireland has been hashed and rehashed a thousand times over.

And still the alarm bells ring.

Two thirds of those who leave Northern Ireland to attend university choose not to return when they graduate. Inexplicably, there are those who see the problem as one of course provision: if only Northern Irish universities provided more specialized courses, it would be able to retain more talent.

Newsflash: it’s got little to do with the courses being offered. What counts is what’s available after university. And here, Northern Ireland falls woefully short.

The statistics are terrifying. In comparison to the three other nations in the United Kingdom, NI has the lowest labour productivity, a full 18% lower than England, it has the highest unemployment rate, the lowest Disposable Household Income per head, over £3k lower than England, and almost 28% of  those employed work for the public sector, compared to 17% in England.

It’s all the more astonishing then that issues like flags and marches are a more potent political flashpoint than the attractiveness of the province to its best and brightest. For all the progress made in the last two decades, priorities remain desperately askew in a place that can little afford it.

But the picture isn’t entirely bleak. The building blocks for a prosperous and attractive future are there. Last year NI outpaced England and Wales on GCSE grades A*C, with 76.5% making the cut vs 67.9% and 65.7% respectively for the latter. A-Levels are a similar story, with 30.7% of Northern Irish students getting A* and A grades in all their subjects, vs 26.3% in England and 22.9% in Wales.

Northern Ireland is a place with tremendous potential.

But what virtue is there for a society in building young people for success and then not providing them with the opportunities to avail themselves of that success when they leave school?

In this networked age it’s easier than ever before for young people to look beyond the confines of their physical communities and national boundaries for the life they want to live. And once those same young people have departed, it’s easier than ever for them to stay connected with relatives at home without having to actually be physically present.

For places like Northern Ireland that makes the problem of brain drain all the more acute, and compounds it with each passing year.

There’s no single solution. Myriad factors are at play, not the least of which is a deeply dysfunctional political leadership rendered all the worse by its obsession with matters of national identity that in every practical sense are meaningless: no referendum on NI’s place in the Union or relationship with Ireland is on the horizon.

But there is one simple truth, Northern Ireland has an alcoholic-like dependence on the English taxpayer and public sector employment. And it needs to be shaken off if the province is to stand any chance of developing the kind of private sector economy that will make it attractive to the many who will otherwise leave.

For sure that’s an easy statement to make, and the development of a dynamic private sector requires broader changes to the business environment in Northern Ireland. But until dependence on public spending is seen as a big part of the problem rather than a central part of the solution, the factors which encourage flight by talented young people will remain and get worse.

Don’t get me wrong, from purely selfish perspective I benefited greatly from Northern Ireland’s capacity to drive people away. But with age comes a maturity I lacked at 18, a recognition that even though emigration should always be a choice, it shouldn’t be a necessity for those who want a better life.

This is the first in a series of articles where I’ll explore Northern Ireland’s dependence on public spending and propose steps that must be taken if the province is to shake off the shackles of that dependence and build the future its people deserve (and need).

In the meantime, I wish the very best to all those booking flights to a better life elsewhere.

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