Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland is desert fiscally, but tourism could prove an oasis

'Stormont only dreams; it does not actually do much. If we did have an economy and you were looking for people to manage it, would you start there?'

There's no such thing as the NI economy and we'll never be self-sufficient financially, such is our reliance on the Exchequer, but attracting more visitors can at least help us to pay our way, says Malachi O'Doherty.

There is no such thing as a Northern Ireland economy but you can see why people might imagine that there is. It suits the British Exchequer to cultivate an illusion that this place can be, in some measure, self-sufficient or self-sustaining, though it can't.

The recent Stormont House Agreement makes us answerable for economic development in a way that other regions of the UK are not.

Talk of our economy feeds the other delusion that devolution gives us a measure of real independence, which it doesn't.

That suits those who imagine that we are detaching ourselves from the UK. Fat lot of good that would do us unless we were attaching ourselves to someone else who could pay the bills.

The DUP is a business friendly party that wants to bring investment here, and that is fine; it's the prevailing economic model throughout these islands and if it can create jobs and direct more income tax to the Exchequer, London will be happy, too.

Maybe some in that party imagine that if Northern Ireland plc - as some like to call it - is made fit and profitable the UK will be more eager to hold onto it.

And Sinn Fein wants to imagine that Northern Ireland is not British but Irish and that things can be done differently here, very differently, when they can't.

So we are not as British as Finchley if we have a different welfare regime and a different rate of corporation tax. But that may turn out to be a ludicrously expensive way of shoring up a dream. The reality is that the big decisions are taken in Downing Street, numbers 10 and 11, and if Sinn Fein wants to influence those decisions it has to be knocking on those doors or meeting the incumbents where representatives of all other regions of the UK meet them, in parliament.

In the Stormont House talks, all parties agreed that Northern Ireland should have a greater say in its own economic development. Grand plans have been hatched for generating growth and paying our way, subsidising benefit so that claimants here can be better off than those in the rest of the UK.

And this is to be paid through credit and the selling of assets.

The kids can borrow the car if they pay for the petrol themselves, earn more money for the household generally and sell those toys they don't use so much any more.

At the end of it they will be working harder, will have lost their PlayStations and some box sets, and they'll still not own the car.

They might call that a scam, but they have to speak nicely to Daddy until they have a car of their own.

So, given that we are entering into a deal like this with Daddy - the British Exchequer - might this not be time to pause and reconsider?

We are going to cut our own takings from corporation tax, sell some assets to cushion the bump and subsidise benefits, and hope to create new jobs which will take some people off those benefits, though the income tax take from those jobs will go to the Exchequer, to Daddy.

Might we start to correct our thinking about this by reminding ourselves that there is no such thing as the Northern Ireland economy, any more than there is a Rathlin Island economy or a Peak District economy?

We are all part of the British economy, which is part of the global economy.

We are in danger of imposing on ourselves a responsibility to be self-sufficient when we never can be.

Yes, we can reorder our dealings and develop areas of activity that will bring in more money. Some of that money will circulate around and that will be good for more people. Call that an economy if you like but don't imagine that it is a financial ecosystem that can be managed from Stormont.

And remind yourself while you are thinking about that, that Stormont can't actually manage anything. If it could we would have a multi-sports stadium, a rapid transit light rail system, a training college for police and firefighters, a whopping new golf course at the Giant's Causeway and a bridge across Carlingford Lough. Stormont only dreams; it does not actually do much.

If we did have an economy and you were looking for people to manage it, would you start there?

We have been through the game of our leaders eyeballing the British Prime Minister and getting some money out of him and the danger is that that will go to their heads and encourage them to believe that they can go their own way. This is like the kids winning an argument with Daddy over pocket money, filling the tank and imagining that they own the car. But they would be mugs if they agreed to contribute to the HP payments for it.

And we should think about what we want or can manage in terms of development.

One big plan is tourism.

Those who want this region to be a hub of tourist development should go to Tenerife or Corfu and see what a tourist attraction is really like. There, most of the people on the street at night are foreigners spending money. Most of the people in a church are not praying but taking photographs.

Tourists will like our quaint ways if we package them right. They will love events like the Clonard Novena and the Twelfth. These can be packaged and sold.

Are you on for that?

Can a region which obsesses, sometimes murderously, about identity agree to its identity being made merely quaint.

I can see gift shops with little ceramic Orangemen and their banners; I can see medals and icons fetching more if they have been blessed at the Novena; I can see Troubles tours taken to the next level.

In a tourism-centred region what matters is not the indigenous character but the presentation of it in ways that dazzle people from other countries who know less and care less about it.

Devolution was introduced here not to give us delusions of economic autonomy, but as a means of managing sectarian division, giving each community a share of power so that neither would dominate the other.

Now the primary focus of our political anxiety is how we pay our way. This is not a big local concern in Liverpool or Hull, but stupid bloody Belfast volunteered for it.

This is not an argument against development and business, but we should not confuse that with the fantasy that we are a manageable economy with some potential for autonomous development. And we should not allow our anxieties about our British or Irish identities and destinies to lull us into forgetting that we are just a region, and that we never can and never should be expected to pay our own way.

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