Assembly election an opportunity to realign priorities for Northern Ireland

As we stand in the voting booth on the 2nd of March, can we really vote believing that the current system has fundamentally made a positive impact on the amount of money we have left in our pockets at the end of every week? Can we support a system that prioritises flying a flag over feeding a family? Can we truly believe a language act will increase employability skills to ensure the next generation are better equipped to generate and spread wealth to boost overall earnings or can that money be best placed on adding to the budget for supporting skills development that will boost productivity output across our industries.

For years we’ve existed in a society dominated by the politics of green and orange, of religious zealots and rabid ideology, of fear and loathing and inbuilt segregation. It’s time to start bringing these barriers down and to focus on the next generation who want social inclusion, individual liberty but most of all, a generation that simply wants opportunity, both socially and economically.

We find ourselves, once again, asking not only what went wrong but also what can we do, individually and collectively, to build a society in line with what the majority of people of Northern Ireland say they want and deserve?

This election gives a clear opportunity to set a mandate for how we want our society in Northern Ireland to shape up over this next 5 years. We have an opportunity for someone to stand up and offer a platform for progressive politics, one shaped by the future, not bound to the past, with a focus on integration of educational policy, improving the health service and delivering economic prosperity across all communities. At times this may appear as wishful thinking, but should this not be the positive change we aspire to see?

In my own work I interact daily with smart, ambitious, driven entrepreneurs in the tech sector who are laser focussed on building globally competitive businesses. Over this past number of years, I’ve founded companies in the US and the UK and although we lack the infrastructure to compete with more established markets, the one thing we don’t lack is skill or ambition. Translating that into meaningful output and wealth creation at scale requires investment, focus and the addition of experienced global entrepreneurs into the eco system. As we currently sit, with a broken government, facing a prolonged period of instability and perhaps even direct rule, how do we make that happen?

According to the income tracker report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research, the average salary in Northern Ireland is £18,769, compared with the UK average of £22,044, and a discretionary income of £98 per family per week, almost 50% less than the rest of the UK.

According to the UUEPC Northern Ireland Competitiveness Report for 2016, long-term youth unemployment remains persistently high while the proportion of the population who are not in education, employment or training is also relatively large and increasing.

On top of that, according to the Northern Ireland poverty bulletin, over 100,000 children in Northern Ireland are living in poverty. That’s 1 in 4 children in Northern Ireland currently living in poverty.

There is no disputing that UK productivity has slowed over this past number of years when compared to other economies of a similar size and scale, while the gap between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK continues to grow in terms of GVA per hour worked and GVA per productive job, with the ONS ranking Northern Ireland last out of the 12 UK regions for performance.

That Northern Ireland is being cut adrift from the rest of the UK while the UK itself struggles is a massive issue in itself and one that should be the centre piece of the upcoming election, not a footnote, consigned to the small print of a manifesto pledge.

While heritage, culture and legacy issues undoubtedly have their time and place, can we really build a narrative for the future that justifies the damage done to issues like hospital waiting lists, educational segregation and economic growth in playing a supporting role to the politics of division. With the limited budget available to the country, could the money spent supporting things like the parading season not be better used to change the future of a hungry child born into poverty through no fault of its own?

To see true change we need to shake off the shackles of the past, to have the vision to see the future for what it can be and to put our faith in those we believe represent the values we hold dear but who also have the skill and dedication to focus on delivering a society based on liberty, freedom and prosperity. When the votes are counted, let’s hope that desire for change is truly reflected.

Aaron Taylor is Managing Partner at Frankly, a venture development company connecting start-ups and corporates in the U.K. and the U.S.

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  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    The problems you seem to pointing out seem to be deep structural problems with the basic constitutional and economic set up of Northern Ireland.

    Doesn’t that make the politics of Orange and Green all the more relevant then?

  • Old Mortality

    This piece makes frequent references to productivity. Could you define what you mean by productivity?
    The message I’m receiving from you is that we should divert public spending into areas which improve the productive capacity of the economy. You throw in the cost of the marching season as an example of wasted public expenditure. I would add to that excessive payments to legal aid lawyers, a welfare system which encourages people to avoid formal employment, politically inspired subsidies for ‘cultural’ activities and a lot more besides.

  • Old Mortality

    What are these deep ‘structural problems’ apart from an unwillingness to make things better? The principal structural problem in NI is too much government and too many people dependent on the state for a living. Unfortunately, these people have the right to vote which means that the problem is almost irresoluble by local democracy.

  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    The fact that having a micro statelet for a population smaller than Greater Manchester that is utterly dependent on outside economic subventions isn’t really a efficient or effective way of developing an economy

  • Old Mortality

    Size of population is no determinant of economic success. I’m glad you agree on subventions which could and should be reduced through a radical attack on state dependency in all its forms. Sadly, direct rule offers the only remote prospect of that occurring.

  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    Or an absorption of Northern Ireland’s state institutions into the Irish state with an accompanying rationalisation of services in both Belfast and Dublin.

  • Brian Walker

    It’s time civil society including business got off the pot. This kind of bleating has been heard for twenty years with nil effect.on mainstream politics. They have do more than wring their hands like this about politics. The need to stop running scared of political parties and start identifying constructive and destructive elements in each party’s behaviour in a running political critique. Fresh Start contained a modest role for civic participation that seems to have died the death. They should agitate for the revival of the GFA civic forum idea. and if the parties don’t agree, they should set it up – and fund it – anyway.

  • Barneyt

    All sounds great but this is something that stands a better chance in a territory that is not under dispute or conveniently excluded by the mainland as they through phrases like GB and Britain as if to imply the UK. NI is largely a second thought and even its inhabitants struggle to correctly define it. Region? Statelet? Or even country. You’re looking at the wrong patient I’m afraid when we’ve yet to determine if they’re in the right hospital.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    No longer between Protestant and Catholic..but secularism and Christianity.

  • Zorin001

    No it still is deep down, the devout religious members of each tribe may make common cause when it suits them but the fault-lines are deep and they are still there.

  • David McCann

    Nevin, Ball not man, stick to the rules please

  • Nevin

    I pointed out the correct company name. Perhaps someone could make the correction.

  • Nevin

    We can only vote for candidates who stand for election. I respect the opposing constitutional aspirations and appreciate the problems associated with tug-of-war politics. As someone who works with politicians from across the piste I can see the personal sacrifices that some make either for the greater good of those they identify with and/or for wider society; I’ve little time for the mockers and chancers who wouldn’t lift a finger to help the victims of our contentious politics and bumbling bureaucracy.