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It's a massively nuanced issue and one which we are particularly sensitive to

By Andrew Webb (undecided)

Published 01/03/2016

I'm very open minded on the topic of Brexit and have plenty of reading and thinking to do before coming to my own conclusion. I can see strong economic and social positives to being in a market that allows free trade and movement of people.

But first-hand experience of the EU leaves me with a sense of dread at the cumbersome inefficiency that operates the EU show. Also, things have changed considerably since 1973 when joining the European community was arguably a crucial factor in saving the UK economy from a death spiral, so I don't really buy the doomsday scenarios that are bandied about in relation to how worse off the UK would be outside the EU.

However, it is a massively nuanced issue and one which Northern Ireland is particularly sensitive to, given our receipt of additional EU monies (through, for example, the PEACE funds) and our land border with the south. To that end, I have always had an interest in the 'all island economy' and levels of corporation north and south that could benefit us all. My reading on the issue tracks back to the early 1990s and Sir George Quigley's championing of the idea.

His ideas were not universally popular when first aired but since then, examples of successful collaboration such as the All-Island Energy market, the work that InterTradeIreland do on an island basis and the growing relationship between Belfast and Dublin are easier to find.

That said, there appear to be so many other ways that the economic interests of the whole island could be enhanced through cross-border co-operation and innovation.

I was therefore particularly interested when a report from the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in the south was launched in January. The case for moving toward broader co-operation across a comprehensive array of issues was laid out in the report. Coming from an economic development background, there were several areas of particular interest to me, including the recommendations to:

n Establish a single island-wide agency for the economy that integrates Invest NI, IDA and InterTradeIreland to ensure an integrated approach to investment, innovation and economic policy and strategy across Ireland. As it stands, the two economies are very different. For example, Ireland enjoys greater export openness, attraction of foreign direct investment, intensity of research and development while our economy is relatively more dependent on the public sector and is seeking to rebalance the economy for a greater private sector share, focusing on innovation, R&D and creativity as tools to do that.

A more integrated approach would, it is argued, result in better co-ordination and more impact from EU funds and economic policy planning.

n Develop an integrated labour market strategy focused on job creation: All-Island networks which bring together business, higher education institutes, research institutes, key partners and suppliers across all sectors have been suggested in the report. From a skills demand and supply perspective, an all-island solution would bring scale and enable specialisation within existing institutions.

n Develop an integrated all-island investment strategy. This recommendation focused on locating more FDI in a border development corridor, where skills and facilities can support it. I'm a little surprised it didn't go further and, similarly to Tourism Ireland, suggest a single body for international marketing of the island as a business destination.

n Upgrade infrastructure across the island. This recommendation encompassed many of the road and rail connection issues that readers will be aware of but it also highlighted a growing concern around a three speed economy that is emerging across the island.

The city regions of Belfast and Dublin are powering ahead, followed by the regions well connected to these city regions through high quality transportation and other infrastructure, and, lastly, the border region and arguably anywhere west of the river Bann.

n Build SMEs to ensure they deliver to their full potential. I have written before on how many programmes there are to support small businesses in Northern Ireland - about 2,000. Imagine a situation where all the duplicated provision across the island was streamlined and the savings invested in other areas.

The reality of the situation is that two relatively small, peripheral economies are trying to improve their economic performance and competitiveness in broad isolation from each other. All in all, it seems entirely logical that an all-island economy increases economic opportunity and offers the chance to reduce duplication of service provision and reduce costs. The Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation report on the all island economy is therefore certainly worthy of deeper consideration and more profile here that it seems to have received.

Could deeper all-island integration square with a Brexit? I'm not so sure.

Andrew Webb, managing director, Webb Advisory @andrewjude_webb

Belfast Telegraph

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