Here’s an odd little story, which may or may not tell us something about: a, the relevance of actual policy to the political discourse in Northern Ireland; or b the sheer emptiness of the political campaigning in our first fixed term Westminster elections.
For a long time the SDLP has been scathing of Invest NI’s (completely understandable) reluctance to ‘break new economic ground’ with regards to its inward investment strategy.
It’s an easier sell to get companies to come to areas with a record of high employment, and a motivated and skilled workforce. The converse of this of course is that areas like west Belfast where the opposite is the case routinely lose out.
So Alex Attwood was following a policy line the party had been plough for years when he said towards the close of debate on the Welfare Bill that…
If you have a situation in which, in this part of Ireland, long-term male Catholic unemployment is virtually unchanged decades after fair employment, where increasing numbers of Protestant male adults experience the same long-term, generational unemployment whereby nobody in a family — children, parents or grandparents — works, what do you do to remedy that? You invest to deal with that disadvantage. That means that you do not put FDI into south and east Belfast but protect industrial sites in west Belfast and try to move into those areas.
Well, what happens next is interesting, if predictable. The prospective DUP candidate for South Belfast Jonathan Bell and Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O’Muilleoir both try to nail the SDLP’s party leader and sitting MP, Alasdair McDonnell in unison and with the same lines…
Now this is very interesting. Mairtin was obviously confident that the SDLP will simply cowpe on the matter and fight the criticism the way it has been jointly framed by the two OFMDFM party candidates.
And he wasn’t wrong. Rather than pressing home the point, Mr Attwood this morning on Nolan admitted that he had misspoken.
And yet the party’s policy remains, but with no advocate willing to come out and go toe to toe on the matter of social and economic justice and as pointing out, as Mairtin’s own newspaper once put it, that:
…every time Sinn Féin gets together at another fist-clenching Stormont meeting (the 2008 equivalent of Long Kesh political lectures), we’re told that economic deprivation underpins the myriad social problems that are convulsing the West Belfast community. They hope nobody will think to ask whose job it has been for the past 20 years to get investment and jobs and to generate community confidence and optimism.
It wasn’t as if Adams didn’t have the clout and the contacts. A former aide of Tony Blair has been making frankly embarrassing revelations in a new book about how close Adams and Blair were. Adams was the Oprah Winfrey of Irish-America.
And what did we get? InBev gone and Visteon going. A huge investment conference that holds its nose as it swishes past West Belfast ferrying ministers and Invest NI suits to Hillsborough and Cultra.
Of course, Mairtin saw to it that that column was pulled immediately. [Well, no need to worry the voters about the actual consequences of casting their votes, is there? – Ed] You might say that, I on the other hand…
So here’s the problem in a nutshell. There were no figures, no details, no substance, just a matter of principal. And the shared OFMdFM party principle here appears to be keep on keep on ignoring the economic distress of west Belfast.
The SDLP is hardly helped by a press that rushes to sensationalise the flat earth politics of press release journalism, but in all of this, is it fair to ask: who exactly represents a practical challenge to the ongoing deprivations of west Belfast?
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