Parties must not pass up window of opportunity to do deal for Northern Ireland
Published 22/05/2014 | 09:46
Memo to our political classes: next Tuesday is the first day of the rest of your lives.
The votes will be counted, the die will have been cast and the winners will have celebrated, but nothing fundamental will have changed for society at large.
It is not just that the balance of power at Stormont, where the main decisions are taken, won't be affected by the European and local government elections.
All the same problems which beset us a few months ago will resurface after the distraction of the election campaign – just like the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone nearly a hundred years ago.
We will still have a divided society, we will still need to nurture the green shoots of economic recovery and we will still have issue like welfare reform, flags, parading and the past threatening to wreck the precarious political accommodation we have achieved.
There will be a very narrow window of opportunity after Tuesday to tackle them. Within weeks we will be in the heart of the marching season and politicians will be starting to drift off for the summer.
Marching is the most immediate issue and a promising start has been made by the Apprentice Boys, when they marched past St Patrick's Church in Belfast without incident or offence.
Last month Peter Robinson of the DUP predicted that further agreement on marching could be reached before the summer and added that, if it was not, the newly appointed Parades Commission should be obeyed. That's the only way forward that is possible at this late stage.
Given the financial and social cost of contested parades, it is in everyone's interest to avoid conflict, either by reaching local agreement or accepting independent adjudication.
Welfare reform is just as vital. A blizzard of figures surrounds the cost, but it is very clear that if Sinn Fein and the DUP don't broker a deal that accepts the new benefits system in a modified form, our economy will suffer as subsidies from Westminster are reduced.
At its most basic, our politicians would like to pay claimants more than Westminster plans to do, but they haven't the income to do so. This problem isn't going to go away on its own. It can only get worse and cost us more unplanned cuts with every passing month. Sinn Fein and the DUP need to crunch this one – and quickly.
Another way to help those on low incomes is by reducing benefit dependency by creating better paid jobs. That means pulling together for more economic investment.
It also means boosting the construction industry through capital spending on infrastructural projects, something for which increased Westminster funding is available under a deal signed by the Prime Minister and the First and Deputy First Ministers.
The main party leaders, with e exception of the UUP's Mike Nesbitt, are still holding regular meetings on the issues of flag-flying and the past, as well as parading. They will have let us all down if they can't emerge with a common approach in the next few weeks.
The last thing we need for our 11 new super councils is an opening row in each one as the issue of flag-flying on civic buildings is decided on a winner-takes-all basis.
That would be disastrous and would embitter politics for months – or years – to come.
The past is the biggest long-term problem, but the solution, most parties say privately, lies in the Haass proposals.
They can be fine-tuned, but the bottom line is that nobody has come up with any coherent alternative to them.
Hard-working migrants have a lot to offer us
The last thing we need is for racist attacks to become a political – or worse – a sectarian football.
The DUP has unfairly come under fire for allegedly failing to condemn them and for failing to point the finger at elements of the UVF in east Belfast.
That isn't accurate, and it is clear that the spread of attacks goes beyond the heartland of the UVF gang being blamed for some of them. South and north Belfast have also suffered.
Our politicians need to pull together to counter any attempt to excuse attacks; there is a thin line between saying something is understandable and actually encouraging it.
We have faced no flood of immigration. The number who came here looking for a better life barely kept pace with the numbers who left our shores, seeing some other country as their land of opportunity.
Many of the first wave of Polish emigrants went home again when the jobs dried up and their home economy improved.
We hope that many of our own young people who leave will come back again in a few years, having learnt new skills and made new contacts while abroad. The last thing we want is to see them driven out of their new homes abroad by mindless prejudice.
The vast majority of migrants who come to Northern Ireland want to work and pay taxes – not to claim benefits. In many cases they work harder than us at jobs which long-term residents are not prepared to do and, in others, they bring skills we lack, helping us to attract contracts that would otherwise go elsewhere.
Employing foreign workers in well-paid, skilled jobs on contracts in east Belfast allows us the space to train our own people up and to fill at least some of the vacancies.
We should learn from them, not feel bitter at their success and enterprise in coming here to work in our economy and pay taxes into it.
Many of our food processing industries, for instance chicken factories, would not have grown so fast and contributed so much to local areas without foreign workers to take up the slack where locals couldn't – or wouldn't – do the jobs. The same is true of elder care.
This is how a globalised economy works. People who move abroad are usually determined to make a go of it in their new homes. And we are lucky to get them.