The after-effects of Covid-19 on these two islands is currently very unclear but one thing is certain, the impact of the past few months has been seismic. There are huge adverse consequences for all parts of Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The ramifications are potentially much more profound and long-lasting compared to the Global Financial Crisis, more than a decade ago, which gave rise to the worst recession in over half a century.
The current outlook for Northern Ireland (NI) is very challenging. There are few obvious signs of encouragement. Job losses are escalating at an alarming rate and many of them are occurring across the high streets of NI’s cities and towns. The economy remains heavily dependent on the UK Exchequer for a significant amount of funding and it is increasingly apparent that there is little prospect of this dependency reducing. And Belfast our capital city feels more like an American western movie – a largely deserted city centre, our parks left to fester and to top it all too many bins choked with the debris of the worst aspects of city life.
Regardless of these issues, there is a critical need to assess our economic situation over the next twenty years. The world outlook is fragile with countries across the globe taking on huge levels of debt. At the same time, there is almost universally a wave of ageing populations with much higher levels of dependency. And then there are the unprecedented challenges climate change is already presenting which will be the most damaging to the poorest in our world.
Nearly a decade ago Tim Harford (FT columnist, writer, broadcaster of Radio 4’s “More or Less” ) wrote a fantastic book “Adapt – Why success always starts with failure”. There are many fascinating insights in this book. I believe that we have reached that critical moment in terms of where we are in Northern Ireland. It is time we transform/adapt our relationship with the Republic of Ireland to one of co-operation and collaboration as we look out to global markets.
Instead of the win-lose approach, which for too long has been part of our national currency, we adopt a win-win strategy. This will require a new approach to all N-S bodies fully accepting the need to ensure that E-W is also put/ kept on the same footing. Indeed, one could argue that for N-S bodies to thrive the E-W ones are possibly more important given the importance of the British market to both jurisdictions. In addition, there are new tensions arising with the renewed Scottish independence movement still very much alive despite the adverse outcome in 2014 of its “once in a generation” referendum. This may have potentially massive implications for both islands.
The most critical part of building capability between the jurisdictions in terms of an economic transformation is the corridor between Belfast and Dublin. In February 2010, Irish Academy of Engineering and Engineers Ireland (both all-island bodies) published “Infrastructure for an island population of 8m” by 2030. It anticipates “a Belfast-Dublin Corridor with a population of 4m and appropriate infrastructure investment which can compete with other major European urban zones”.
Ten years later little has been done in substance to prepare for this prospect. It is critical to wealth creation that detailed plans are now drawn up. More than 25 years ago, one of NI’s most senior and highly regarded civil servants (who then went on to be the Chair of Ulster Bank and Bombardier) considered the importance of the corridor. Sir George Quigley was also instrumental in persuading the Treasury to agree to a lower level of corporation tax. Sadly, this golden goose has in all probability flown. Suffice to say the potential of the Economic Corridor between Belfast and Dublin remains the single most important economic opportunity to face this island.
As a first step, implementing as soon as possible an hourly service would be a statement of intent. That will however take time (having taken a decade already!). What could be done with a will is to get a train into Dublin Connolly before 9am – the first service leaves Belfast at 6.45am and arrives at 9am if it runs on time. The next is the 8am service that gets in at 10.05am. It would be great to have a 6.30am, 7.30am and 8.30am service from Belfast into Dublin as close as possible to 8.30am, 9.30am and 10.30am. In the afternoon, if we had a 4.30pm from Dublin and then a 5.30pm and a 6.30pm service that would be a great start. This should happen before 2020 is out with all the necessary social distancing measures in place. Historically, getting the slots sorted has been very hard because of local services took priority but now there might be a window (every cloud has a silver lining).
In July 2019, in an address at the McGill Summer School, I suggested that there is a need for much greater ambition when it comes to rail travel between the two/three principal cities on the island of Ireland – during the last Rugby World Cup in Japan the trains made a huge impact on visitors from Ireland. The proposals by the two rail authorities of getting to a service of 90 minutes between Belfast and Dublin (over a very long time – not specified) just does not cut it. 45 minutes is where we need to aim. It is important to remember that we are competing economically in a global market, just as we do in sport!
We face many risks as we look out over the next decade and beyond. It has always surprised me how we assume that the Barnett Formula is a given. When first implemented some fifty years ago it was meant to be a “temporary measure. At some point, HM Treasury may seek to review this “generous arrangement”. Central to this potentially happening is the perception/the reality of equity. Across England, there will be (are) many places that have broadly equivalent levels of deprivation and poverty to many parts of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is not inconceivable that each of these places will ask why they are not similarly deserving of similar levels of support – a levelling up of the playing field perhaps? The challenge of how this could be accommodated in a post-Covid-19 world where revenue funding will become scarcer and scarcer is very problematic.
To quote from the closing comments of an address “Finding your Element” by the brilliant Sir Ken Robinson (who sadly died last month), he refers to a beautiful short poem “Risk” by Anaïs Nin:
And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
We on this part of this beautiful island have suffered the pain over too many decades of being “tight in a bud”. We need to risk everything to blossom.
This post is part of our #TheReset series in association with Ulster Bank
If you would like to get involved in #TheReset, either as an individual or as part of an organisation, please do get in touch by emailing us at [email protected] or [email protected] with an idea for inclusion in a range of articles or events over September and October.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.