Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Finance jobs on way north is a 'win-win' deal

It may well be an indication of things to come that the last meeting of Peter Robinson and Brian Cowen as finance ministers and before their elevation to the office of First Minister and Taoiseach respectively should be about the bread and butter issues of employment, job creation and joint economic development.

Here are two supremely practical men, steeled in the discipline of fiscal control and economic reality, combining their efforts for the mutual benefits of both jurisdictions.

It may be a sign that when they meet again in their top jobs, their discourse will be equally practical.

Perhaps we are seeing a change in the nature of politics, a move away from the constitutional and structural issues which have dominated the debate for the last 10 years and which have been put to bed by the Agreement, and a move towards the issues which are of concern to a stable government everywhere.

It may also mark a significant development in the emergence of an all-island economy as something arising, not from political imperatives or ideological conviction, but from the economic and commercial realities within Europe and in a globalising world where boundaries to the free movement of goods, labour and capital have been removed and where interdependence is a given.

It also indicates their confidence in the security of the unionist position that the DUP, and particularly in the person of Peter Robinson, can embrace the concept of complementary development of the labour force and the skills base, north and south of the border, without regarding the proposals as a vehicle to trundle Northern Ireland into an all-Ireland Republic.

In recognising the mobility of labour across the border the ministers are merely accepting a reality that has prevailed for some years, particularly in the construction industry.

The booming construction sector in the Republic has been sucking in skilled labour from the border areas of the north for years now.

A more immediate moment is the inability of international firms in the financial services sector in the south to maintain their planned rate of expansion for lack of suitably qualified graduates or technicians there.

There is anecdotal evidence of one large American company which abandoned plans to locate its European research centre in Dublin for this reason.

It makes sense therefore to draw on the pool of graduate and skilled labour in the north.

The next stage, and one particularly attractive to northern ministers is the outsourcing of some of these jobs to sites in the north and ultimately the establishment of free standing or spin-off units there.

The forecast of growth in the financial services sector in the Republic (which is partly needed to off-set the loss of jobs in construction and manufacturing) is a clear sign of where the economy there is going-and where Northern Ireland must go to.

Peter Robinson will be well aware of the imperative need for the Executive to produce jobs, to move from the rhetoric of togetherness to the delivery of results on the ground through practical programmes and investments.

There is a particular need to ween the north off overdependence on the public sector.

A quick boost to employment through the importation of jobs which cannot be filled in the south would be a useful starting point.

If Mr Cowen comes bringing promises of assistance which contrasts with what is on offer from the Treasury makes its own kind of point.

At a time when the Holy Grail of a common corporate tax rate has been withheld, it is ironic that Mr Cowen should be prepared to extend the mantle of southern tax relief to work outsourced to the north, and that the financial regulatory authorities in the south are prepared, in certain circumstances, to permit bodies subject to their supervision to operate in Northern Ireland.

What is being proposed - and there is much flesh to be put on the bones - is a potential example of north/south co-operation at its best.

That it is now being proposed by two of the most hard-headed (and indeed hard-nosed) politicians, north and south, is a guarantee that it will be well anchored in economic reality and pragmatism.

It makes sense to think of a single labour pool on the island. It also makes sense to avoid all the workers being drawn to work in Dublin.

In terms of spatial planning in the Republic it makes sense to have a powerful counter-poll in the north.

In the north it makes sense to develop a presence in the new knowledge-based industries which will ensure that young people can work in their own area, thus ending the damaging brain drain, and those who have moved can return, as our counterparts in the south have done, to work in secure and rewarding jobs.

If it is seen to work it can be a template for constructive and politically non-threatening co-operation across the island in the use of scarce resources or skills in areas like health, energy environmental protection and crime.

Both politically and economically, in the jargon of the trade, it can only be win/win.

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