Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

It's going to be a tough job, but politicians must deliver

The Executive must do more to back job-creation via private sector-led growth, argues Declan Billington

These are challenging times for the Northern Ireland Executive. There is less money available, unemployment is rising and a battle with the public sector trade unions is looming over pensions.

As the DUP, the party of Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and DETI Minister Arlene Foster, gather this weekend for their annual conference to bask in the afterglow of the Programme for Government (PfG), it is a good time to turn our thoughts to the economic way forward.

While wrestling with the competing challenges on the Northern Ireland purse, there is a real danger that our politicians may lose focus on the one thing that could turn the economy around. That secret ingredient is, unsurprisingly, job-creation, through private sector-led growth.

If the Executive wishes to deliver improvement, the single most important thing it could do is to implement policies across all departments that support rapid economy-led employment growth.

The right policies would enable society here to trade its way out of unemployment and poverty by creating jobs across all of Northern Ireland.

It is also true that the issue of how the Executive can actually raise funds is exercising minds at Stormont and in the Department of Finance and Personnel.

The current debate around public sector pensions with, for example, the Northern Ireland local authority pension fund NILGOSC, is a case in point.

With a funding deficit thought to be more than £1bn in March 2010, our local public authorities will have to cover this shortfall. The result: more of our rates' bill will go towards paying for public-sector pensions and less towards the provision of public services.

However, in the short-term, our options for economic and jobs growth are narrow.

Corporation tax, a cornerstone policy to attract businesses from outside Northern Ireland over the medium term, will not deliver jobs in the next three years.

In reality, with the money from London drying up, it will be by backing export-focused businesses and tourism that the Executive can make a real difference in the short term.

If Northern Ireland wishes to be successful in the global marketplace, then Government will need to become a lot more responsive across all the departments in supporting business growth.

Those departments which, through infrastructure and skills development, play a supportive role need to ensure their actions deliver the right results for business.

Likewise, those responsible for Planning and the Environmental Agency, whose processes often frustrate businesses' ability to grasp opportunities, must seek ways of finding workable solutions for all parties. Jobs depend on it.

The Programme for Government is a start. However, until all ministers have weaved the notion of supporting private sector employment creation into the very fabric of their respective departments, we are unlikely to create the dynamic needed to deliver the jobs we crave.

Job-creation is the only game in town that can reverse the negative economic spiral we are in. And, while it is clear that some of our ministers 'get it', it will be the words and actions of all our ministers over the next few weeks that will show us if the Executive can act as one on this key policy priority.

Otherwise, we will have a Programme for Government which is strong on rhetoric, but short on action. The prize for success? More people employed and able to achieve a better quality of life.

Surely that is, after all, what good government is all about?

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