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.