Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

David Cameron ignores Northern Ireland at his peril

Needing assistance: Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson return from the United States
Needing assistance: Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson return from the United States

A warm welcome back to the First and Deputy First Minister after their travels to the Americas. We must hope that such an extensive tour will bear investment fruit and that their talks with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, today will give Northern Ireland some hope of countering the grim fact that unemployment is now higher than before the Good Friday Agreement.

Sadly, power-sharing at Stormont, coupled with relative peace and stability, has not proved the panacea of our economic ills. Without the annual bail-out from the Exchequer, heaven only knows where this small community might be.

Possibly we might all be queuing in panic at our ATMs, emulating another tiny, but troublesome, speck on the European firmament – Cyprus.

Thankfully, Belfast is not Nicosia and Londonderry is not Limassol. That is cold comfort to those who have no job, to the homeowners in negative equity, to the liquidated and the bankrupt.

Meanwhile, life goes on at its own pace up at Stormont.

The news is of school closures and hospital funds diverted towards home care and through local GPs. As the cake shrinks, it must be cut in different ways to make less go further.

The chancellor, George Osborne, decrees another public spending cut of 1% this year, next year and the year after.

Though Northern Ireland is far from the wealthy boroughs of London and the south-east, it is not escaping the medicine of austerity.

It must be tempting in London – and Dublin – to leave Northern Ireland to its own devices and half-forget about the place.

Tempting, indeed, with so many economic worries swirling all around the UK and the Republic of Ireland, but also exceedingly dangerous – in 2013, in particular.

Small as this place is, it still packs the potential to hit the international headlines for all the wrong reasons. We retain the capacity to unravel as the flag protests and activities of dissident republicans continue to demonstrate.

No one, least of all a British Prime Minister, should ever take Northern Ireland for granted. I hope that David Cameron is not falling into that trap, as so many of his predecessors did for too long, until 40 years of trouble confronted them in the 1960s.

As he prepares to meet Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness – a rare encounter these days – he will be making a mistake if he leaves Northern Ireland entirely in Stormont's hands to sort out.

On the evidence to date, they have not made much of a fist at achieving a truly shared future.

He will be mistaken also if he believes Northern Ireland can weather the global recession without some radical and imaginative economic initiative from his Government, maybe not Corporation Tax, but certainly extra-special support away above and beyond any in the Budget last week.

The peace that has been so hard-won in this province is too precious to be thrown away, or abandoned. Devolution in a divided society, such as Northern Ireland, was never going to be easy. Devolution coinciding with a world recession has proved to be a poisoned political chalice, from which all the parties at Stormont are now drinking. The multi-party coalition at Stormont is both slow-working and indecisive.

Without more political pressure being brought to bear from London and Dublin, Stormont politicians will continue to sit on their hands and find vetoes and stumbling blocks to progress.

Northern Ireland is like an ailing business, where the principal shareholders, based in London and Dublin, have left the existing joint managing directors and other senior management to their own lethargic ways for too long.

The shareholders should now insist on a full audit of the business, examine the performance over the past five years and insist on more effort to achieve political solvency.

If Mr Cameron is prepared to inject more funds into Northern Ireland, he is entitled to ask for more action from the directors.

In doing so, the Prime Minister will not be interfering.

He will be acting properly, as a benevolent guarantor for a small corner of his United Kingdom, which is struggling against a global gale and which needs all the help it can get to continue to be the example to the world of how peace can be achieved.

As for our stricken economy, if granting the same lower rate of corporation tax as the Republic is not the answer, then what is the alternative? What is Plan B to kick-start the Stormont Executive and Northern Ireland?

The First and Deputy First Minister cannot go away empty-handed from Downing Street. The ball is in Mr Cameron's court.

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