Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Is it Christmas or Groundhog Day? 2014 is just days away - will we get Haass deal?

Is it Christmas or Groundhog Day? 2014 is just days away - will we get Haass deal? Pictured: Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil
Is it Christmas or Groundhog Day? 2014 is just days away - will we get Haass deal? Pictured: Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil

2014 is now only days away. Already we can see the outlines of the political challenges facing the rest of the UK and the Republic in 2014.

This year has ended with a better than expected drop in unemployment in across the UK (Northern Ireland was an exception) and growing business confidence. 2014 will see politics in the rest of the UK debate how to secure a still-fragile economic recovery.

In the Republic, the last week has seen the country exit the IMF-EU bailout scheme. Now the political debate will turn to job-creation, with the Fine Gael-Labour coalition aiming to replace all the jobs lost during the recession.

And in Northern Ireland? As I write this, the headlines are saying that agreement in the Haass talks is unlikely before the end of the year. So, by all indications, 2014 is going to begin with our politics still overshadowed by flags, parades and the Past. 16 years on from the Agreement, eight years on from St Andrews, it will still be groundhog day.

Politics elsewhere on these islands will be focused on how to secure the economic and social well-being of citizens, rebuilding economies broken by the recession - but not in Northern Ireland. Even if there is a deal in the Haass talks in early January, there are suggestions that key issues will be 'parked' and then - of course - there will be the inevitable wrangling over the details of legislation, probably throughout 2014.

Perhaps - just perhaps - we might understand this if Northern Ireland's regional economy was booming (actually our private sector is still far too small); if our unemployment and economic activity rates were among the lowest in the UK (they are not); if we led the UK regions for business start ups (we don't, Wales does). The reality is that the economic challenges facing Northern Ireland are profound. As the rest of the UK emerges from recession, we are still lagging far behind.

Addressing this should be the number one priority of the Executive in 2014. This is what should absorb political energies. This should be the focus of all political activity. It is this background - promoting economic growth in Northern Ireland - which should determine the issues in next year's European election campaign. In 2014, the actions of the Executive Ministers and the debates in the Assembly should be concentrated on promoting economic growth.

This is why we needed the Haass talks to finish by Christmas, to have had an agreement which dealt with flags, parades and Past, allowing Northern Ireland politics to focus on delivering for the next generation rather than being stuck in the 1970s. Now, as I write this, there are still a few days left. With political will, it would be possible. That, however, is the nub of the matter. Political will, political courage - it seems to be lacking amongst the Executive parties.

It would be wrong, however, to end on a bleak note to close to the festive season. We have seen hope for Northern Ireland in the past month. Even as dissident Republican extremists sought to bring violence to the streets of Belfast, even as loyalist elements again took to the streets to bring disruption to our regional capital, the businesses of Belfast and their staff kept going, refusing to be intimidated.

That determination, that focus on building opportunity and aspiration, is what gives me confidence in the future of Northern Ireland, in 2014 and beyond.