“Build Back Better” – how do we turn soundbites into a successful reset and recovery?

Sinead McLaughlin is the SDLP’s economy spokesperson, deputy chair of the Assembly’s economy committee and a Foyle MLA.

Covid-19 will continue to damage our collective health and our economy for a long time to come. Many businesses will fail and, even more sadly, many more people will die from coronavirus. 

Yet it should not be too early to consider recovery. The SDLP has put together four principles for that recovery – a new deal for young people; a new localism; new connectivity; and new powers to transform Northern Ireland. 

Compare this substance to the waffle and soundbites emerging from the British prime minister Boris Johnson. We have moved from ‘Get Brexit Done’ to ‘Build Back Better’. In both cases, bluster covers an empty void. 

My party has given serious consideration to the shape of the future economy of Northern Ireland – both because we know the future will be different from the past, and because the past was not very good for many of the people we represent. Northern Ireland has never had a balanced economy, not in geographical, class, or community terms. 

If our future is to be better than our past we need it to be fairer and we also need it to address our two key weaknesses: infrastructure and skills. My colleague Nichola Mallon is committed to a physical reshaping of Northern Ireland through greater investment in road, rail and water. In my role of deputy chair of the Assembly’s economy committee I have been pushing for the private sector to up its game in terms of stronger electricity and broadband connectivity. 

But this is not enough. As we look forward we have to consider other aspects of our physical environment, recognising that carbon emissions are destroying our society. If some people – and Sammy Wilson and Donald Trump come to mind – believe this is an overstatement then the fires in the West coast of the United States and earlier this year in Australia should be proof to anyone willing to accept scientific evidence. 

A recent report from the University of Oxford’s Smith School provides an outline of how we can focus on social progress as we seek to emerge from the pandemic emergency. Report authors include some of the most respected figures in economics – Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and author of the influential UK government report on climate change, Nicholas Stern. 

Northern Ireland has opportunities to decarbonise our economy that must not be missed. Our air is dirty – my constituency of Foyle has some of the worst air quality of anywhere in the UK. What is more, poor air quality is a key contributor to Covid-19 mortality. Meanwhile, our progress towards carbon reduction targets is slow and out of step with Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. And yet we have some of the best natural environment to produce renewable electricity and hydrogen. 

There is a reason why Barack Obama was told in 2008, after the global financial crash, ‘don’t waste a good crisis’. He responded by linking rescue packages for US auto companies with binding obligations by them to cut their emissions.  

Similarly, the Smith School authors observe “the [pandemic] crisis has demonstrated that governments can intervene decisively once the scale of an emergency is clear and public support is present.” It is proven that the world is facing a climate emergency. If we can produce an emergency response to Covid-19, then surely we can do the same in response to climate change? And if we can do the two together then so much better. 

What this means is that the recovery package in Northern Ireland must be focused on constructing a cleaner economy. It means greater investment in renewable electricity; faster progress towards eliminating dirty fuels, such as coal; more research and development in hydrogen; investing into retrofitting homes via the Green New Deal; and building a new economy around emerging clean energy technologies, carbon capture, advanced battery storage and the health sciences. 

Even for climate sceptics, this package of measures should be attractive and they produce an array of positive outcomes. These include cleaner air; better population health; a more sustainable NHS; and a focus on the industries of the future, rather than those of the past. Not even Sammy Wilson or Donald Trump should disparage that. 

If you would like to get involved in #TheReset with Ulster Bank either as an individual or as part of an organisation, please do get in touch by emailing us at [email protected] with an idea for inclusion in a range of articles or events over September and October.

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