Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Shared future is only way to address our inequalities

A policy on the way to break down divisions in society here is required if Northern Ireland is to move forward, says Alliance Party MLA Chris Lyttle

Chris Lyttle

Community relations issues for too long have been placed on the margins of the political process.

Nineteen years on from the ceasefires, and 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement, there is still no comprehensive and robust strategy in Northern Ireland for building a shared future. This is why the Alliance Party has published our blueprint for a shared future, entitled 'For Everyone'.

Such a strategy cannot be considered an optional extra. The past few months have served to bring into sharp focus the consequences and costs of not addressing the continued deep divisions in this society.

It must be clearly understood that there is a strong economic rationale for a shared future, and a clear risk and cost to our economy if we fail to do so. Northern Ireland has clearly suffered from violence and division. The Troubles had the effect of denying the opportunity for our economy to be restructured and rebalanced as other western economies have succeeded over the past decades.

As such we have a legacy of public sector dependency, a large financial subvention from the Treasury, and considerable economic inactivity. Too many of our young people are without jobs and hope or have left these shores for opportunities elsewhere.

I commend the Executive for the measures they are taking to grow our economy, to invest in skills, to create new and better jobs, and to address unemployment and economic inactivity. A clear economic strategy is in place, some companies are growing and investors are putting money into communities.

Yet the continued divisions in our society, a lack of respect for diversity and the risk of violence and disruption will lead to businesses thinking about investing elsewhere.

Furthermore, divisions and violence increase the costs of doing business, segment markets, and impede full labour market mobility.

There is a very clear correlation between those areas that have suffered most from division and segregation and those that are lowest in terms of a range of health, education and economic indicators. A shared future is the only realistic way to address this inequality and give people opportunity and hope.

The ongoing costs of managing a divided society create opportunity costs that restrict the ability of the Executive to invest in quality public services or the key drivers necessary for the transformation of our economy. So it is vital we acknowledge that creating a shared future is an issue for everyone. We must make fundamental changes to transform our economy. But if we are to develop to our full potential, we must understand the necessity both of a shared future in a general sense, and the specific actions that government must adopt.

All major government policies should be screened for their impact on building a shared future. This develops the initiative that has already been taken by the Alliance Ministers for Justice, and Employment and Learning. Similarly, public expenditure should be audited for duplication and opportunities to more efficiently and effectively spend scarce resources.

Alliance does acknowledge that redirecting the costs of division is not going to be easy or quick, and that, indeed, we may have to invest first to save later, but we must urgently make a start.

New capital investment and the creation of public space must be designed to maximise accessibility. There must also be a clear understanding of the use of different facilities by people from different background and patterns of labour mobility, and seek to address barriers whether they are actual or perceived chill factors or limited skills.

There remains a sense of optimism about the future of Northern Ireland, and a belief in the potential of our economy and people, but it is absolutely vital that we do everything in our power to build a shared future for everyone in Northern Ireland to make these hopes a reality.

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