#SluggerTalks: Unlocking NI’s potential requires a shift in priorities and resources

On Wednesday Shane Greer and I kicked off the first of what we hope will become a regular trans-Atlantic conversation on the future of Northern Ireland. We will being bringing guests into our next session but the main purpose here was to follow up on his original blog essay.

It’s a tough call. A few years back I did try to get a conversation going on the future of Belfast which was all but subsumed in the misery of the flag protests when Belfast City Council decided to restrict the flying of the Union flag over Belfast’s hallmark building.

So why does Shane think we have tremendous potential? First he cites institutional stability, backed and guaranteed by two sovereign government of the United Kingdom and Ireland. This he argues puts us in far better position than other post conflict societies.

He also goes on to note that the world around us has changed, with regard to the ease with which people can move away and still stay connected with home, which he says goes hand in hand with a globalised world has created new opportunities for people..

That said, as Brandon Hamber noted on Twitter, there’s an underlying stability in the NI population flows which is radically at odds with the drastic outward churn in the younger demographic groups of the Republic:

Even if overall inflows and outflows of population are relatively the small, the motivation for those leaving may have changed. Far fewer are fleeing to avoid the sectarian tensions so much as moving towards opportunity.

One of the controversial issues raised was what exactly do we mean when we say NI has tremendous potential. It’s too easy to resort to the dying metaphors of the Peace Process™ era.

On Facebook one reader offered this off the cuff but concrete thought on the matter:

In a strict economic sense the gap (measure of underperformance) between the actual output/GVA measure and a hypothetical potential measure would be the way to go if the aim is to quantify ‘potential’.

The hypothetical would for example assume NI matches GB productivity performance (note that GB’s performance is nothing special over the long-run).

Sources of the gap are multiple, but institutional structures which impact on the supply-side are crucial. It’s here that political failure may link to economic underperformance.

Another reader emailed Slugger with the following:

The question is what makes a strong modern outward looking economy, and what does NI need to do to get there? In other words what might be the sort of economy that would not only keep young educated people, but also attract more young educated young people and dynamic businesses that have the potential to grow in that outward facing economy?

It is certainly not subsidising back room service jobs in the same way as NI subsidised synthetic fibre production in the 1960s. You can’t buy investment that lasts. JTI pumped millions into Ballymena, but is still moving to another EU country (so regulation is a bit of a distraction as a reason BTW).[emphasis added]

So what’s blocking us politically? Shane argues it is fundamentally a problem of priorities.  He cites that signal issue of #flegs as a primary example of how politicians’ become consumed with near term skirmishing at the expense of long term vision.

So what can practically be done?

The issue is not so much going for wholesale privatisation of publicly owned utilities (governed by a regulatory system which is slowly coming into disrepute) so much as subtly changing the environment, not simply to support business but to encourage entrepreneurship.

Towards the end, we touched on Brian Walker’s question in the comments to Shane’s original post, which ran…

“Having followed the debates for a decade I’m a sceptic about the supposed benefits particularly without a north-south economic development strategy and with a Barnett squeeze all but inevitable .”

That scepticism is no doubt widespread. But worth noting this is not something unknown elsewhere.  The Devolutionaries on BBC Radio Four looked at cities as an organ of regeneration interviewed Bruce Katz author of The Metropolitan Revolution

When you are trying to build your economy, when you are trying to grow your innovation sector, when you are trying to re-build your core areas it is best for local decision makers to be able to deploy their resources and  powers in advance of their visions rather than looking to central government for permissions or resources.

Our next SluggerTalks video chat will be in a week or two. In the meantime keep an eye out for Shane’s next essay and please do take the opportunity to join the conversation about the future of Northern Ireland.

You can follow the debate on Twitter,  Facebook and at LinkedIn on the Politics and Public Affairs group. You can also email your comments and feedback directly to editor@sluggerotoole.com.

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  • Had emailed MIck, and then expanded and posted this (below) on earlier piece. Also note that JTI did not move to gain lower corporation tax either!

    “The question ref ‘potential’ is all wrong, and the result is a single focus on young people with potential who choose to go elsewhere. Better to ask what would it take to keep/attract talented people, young or old?

    The question should be ‘what makes a strong modern outward looking economy, and what does NI need to do to get there?’ In other words what might be the sort of economy that would not only keep young educated people, but also attract more talented educated people and dynamic businesses that generates the potential to grow that outward facing economy. It is certainly not subsidising back room service jobs in the same way as NI subsidised synthetic fibre production in the 1960s. You can’t buy investment that lasts. JTI pumped millions into Ballymena, but is still moving to another EU country (so regulatory environment is a bit of a distraction as a reason for moving btw).

    It is no wonder the South is growing given that USA and UK are the only two major western economies with decent growth, at present, representing the South’s key source of inward investment and export markets respectively. For Northern Ireland to look South for markets rather than East, West and the rest, is good talk but economic nonsense. The South is safe and easy and on doorstep, and serves to suggest that Ireland is somehow a natural economic entity (as well as a political one, underlying that notion). Meanwhile, rightly, the South is looking to the UK as principal market and the rest of the world for investment.

    To go from where we are to where we need to be is a challenge. Mostly playing catch-up with all the other places in the world seeking inward investment and growing new businesses. That gap is huge, and demands huge restructuring of almost every aspect of political/social/economic life that i doubt any politician would stand ups and tell us what is needed – hard enough to deal with simple welfare reform that was an essential component of the Swedish economic upturn for all those who think social justice etc.

    Fintan O’Toole’s description of Sinn Fein “Truthiness” http://www.irishtimes.com/deba… was spot on earlier this week. In the same way, a ‘truthiness’ approach applies to ALL our local political parties and the NI economy. Running to mummy Westminister because of an almost dysfunctional neediness for attention and support is no the foundation of any change that will be meaningful to any young person in the near or long term. Nor will it even begin to address the change needed to lift NI towards a modern open economy.”

  • barnshee

    ” the same way as NI subsidised synthetic fibre production in the 1960s”

    MMF industries in NI were a a relative success for some 50 years Their impact was positive and substantial. They brought relatively high wage levels to hundreds if not thousands — and more important- extensive training and education styles with them

    Their demise had two main causes
    1 Environmental- their were very very nasty chemicals involved (vinyl cyanide anyone) and big costs were on the horizon for revisions to waste disposal
    2 Wage costs had escalated

    The organisations concerned still make MMF -but not in NI

    NI needs to attract the same STYLES of investment (minus environmental issues)

  • Enkalon was dismantled and sent East. Markets changed. Lots of reasons for closures. Point is that trying to ‘pick winners’ and pay for inward investment is simply playing and paying to corporate rent-seekers http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/06/benefits-corporate-welfare-research-public-money-businesses which may be good short term PR, but massively distorting the market. Also saves politicians having to do that restructuring stuff and having to make really tough decisions.