Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Social reforms need business input

The Northern Ireland Executive has now published in an extended form its recommendations for the awaited policies aimed at building a more cohesive united Northern Ireland community.

These proposals are an essential and overdue part of the mixture of social, political and economic policy that is needed to give stability and confidence to underpin many aspects of a modern and more successful community. The pressure for them has come from the Executive itself and also from the UK Government as well as the other international agencies in supporting the maturing 'peace process'.

The key features which have attracted attention and debate are:

* Peace walls

* Flags and parades

* Shared neighbourhoods and urban villages

* Shared education arrangements

* Improving the lifetime prospects for 10,000 NEETS: young people 'not in education, employment or training'

The comprehensive ambitions of these plans should not be underestimated; neither should they be sidelined by the business community. In the past there has often been an easy assumption that the building of a united community was separate and distinct from the challenges of building a stronger economy. A moment's thought will confirm their interdependence.

Without a stable community, efforts to build a stronger economy were (or are) an attempt to make economic progress whilst downplaying a major unacknowledged handicap. To put the case modestly, would potential investors and new employers not notice the community tensions symbolised by 'peace walls' or the vocal disagreements as expressed in the 'marching season'?

Northern Ireland's economic strategy is partially frustrated by the tensions and divisions of a disunited community.

The business community recognises the inter-action but does not, usually, take the next step of becoming involved in the debate about and the implementation actions on community questions.

Before reflecting on the scope for greater involvement by the business community in building a united community, an acknowledgement is merited that many business leaders do maintain successful businesses and do this at the same time as coping with wider community issues as they impinge on a business. For example, gone are the days when there were examples of inter-community tensions coming into a business on the shop-floor.

Business managers are, by training, experienced in dealing with internal tensions. Would there be merit and good reason in suggesting that business managers, if challenged to the task, would be better orientated to dispute resolution on community issues than our political organisations and some political representatives?

There is, in the agenda for a united community, a series of challenges for business leaders.

First, are the First Ministers ready to invite senior business leaders to play a part in the working group(s) on flags and parading? Would the collective voice of the Business Alliance, drawing on international experience, be worth hearing?

Second, is there expertise in the business community that might be used to plan the detail of major investments in shared education facilities? There are critical questions on the meaning, or extent, of shared education. Are there benefits, financial and educational, in pushing for integrated education, rather than sharing, which could mean remaining separate?

Third, what advice would business leaders give on the implementation of the ambition to launch a united youth programme involving 10,000 NEETs people under the age of 24 on one-year placements? This is a potentially large programme. The content for the activity needs to be constructive, educational and career enhancing. The business community should have a major interest in making it highly relevant to lifestyles, work ethics and careers.

And fourth, the housing village development ideas might be helped with business expertise on construction, financing and governance.

Building a united community programme will be an expensive and necessary development. If the UK Government is willing to help with extra funding, that is all the more reason for close participation by business leaders.

If the UK government is willing to help with extra funding, then it is all the more reason for close participation by business leaders

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