Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Stormont needs new wind to get economy moving

Thousands are expected at tomorrow's Youth March for Jobs. But how can the Executive slash the dole queues? Renewable energy holds the key, says Robin Wilson

Fifty years ago this month, when the then Stormont prime minister, Lord Brookeborough introduced a debate on the Northern Ireland economy, thousands of trade unionists were demonstrating against unemployment.

Eight thousand redundancies had been announced in the shipyard the year before and the protesters demanded government action. One nationalist MP claimed that the islandmen had been changing the graffiti in east Belfast from 'No Pope here' to 'No hope here'.

Brookeborough had hoped that a joint inquiry by civil servants from Stormont and Whitehall would ease things for Northern Ireland, but in the consequent Hall report, the Treasury prevailed. Empty-handed, he came under assault from Northern Ireland Labour Party MPs and his political fate was sealed.

His replacement, Terence O'Neill, stole Labour's clothes with interventionist rhetoric. And his minister of commerce, Brian Faulkner, succeeded in attracting modern enterprises - like the man-made fibres firm Courtaulds to Carrickfergus - to replace declining industries, like linen.

But O'Neill was keener to be seen at Catholic schools than do anything about employment discrimination. The rest is history.

Brookeborough's problem was his Unionist Party's dependence on a Conservative Party at Westminster wedded to job-shredding deflation. Another wave of deflation during direct rule, under Margaret Thatcher from 1979, saw Courtaulds and ICI at Kilroot blown away by high interest and exchange rates.

South-east Antrim never recovered and last month history repeated itself, as FG Wilson announced 760 job losses - multiplied by the knock-on effects on suppliers and local retailers.

Tomorrow sees a Youth March for Jobs rally in Belfast, recapitulating the Outdoor Relief marches of 80 years ago, which united Catholic and Protestant unemployed from the Shankill and the Falls. But, like Brookeborough, Stormont ministers still in thrall to the same hands-off dogma of the Depression can only wring their hands in despair.

Oh, and appeal to the Treasury to grant an easement - even if London will reject a corporation tax cut unless linked to a swingeing cut in the block grant, because of fears of tax leakage, particularly since the installation of the tax lawyer Theresa Villiers at Hillsborough Castle, as well as the political implications for Scotland.

Of course, Stormont has changed dramatically; now there are Sinn Fein as well as unionist ministers. But the DUP has carefully kept the Catholics away from the levers of economic power. In any event, Sinn Fein has abandoned its 'revolutionary' pretensions in favour of neo-liberal ideology.

So what would be the new ideas for today, if we had an Opposition at Stormont which, like the old Northern Ireland Labour Party, could force the pace of change in response to anger and despair on the ground?

Well, the first, then as now, would be to co-operate with the trade unions. In 1962, Stormont did not even recognise the Irish Congress of Trade Unions - because its headquarters were in Dublin - and last month Unite the Union complained bitterly of the lack of consultation by FG Wilson before the redundancy bombshell.

For years, the First and Deputy First Ministers have sat on a review they commissioned of the Civic Forum, in suspension since 2002 - in spite of its offering a vehicle for dialogue with the social partners which would be taken for granted elsewhere in Europe.

Secondly, pursue a serious industrial policy. In deference to Treasury orthodoxy - that Government should not 'pick winners' in the current, slavish argot - Stormont is merely generically 'open for business'.

Yet the wisdom of the democratic crowd has to trump the herd instincts of the market and a well-functioning regional economy comprises developed industrial clusters.

A leading international expert, Professor Ron Martin of Cambridge University, presents regional economic policy as like cultivating a garden, which is about fertilising the soil, from which all plants will benefit, and fostering cross-fertilisation, so new varieties appear.

A regional government should similarly animate the economy. It should engender public goods, boosting all firms' competitiveness through publicly-funded research and development.

And it should foster collaborative relationships among firms and between firms and research institutions, so dynamic clusters emerge.

In particular, Stormont must recognise that we live on a windswept island surrounded by water in a world running short of fossil fuel. It must invest heavily, in collaboration with the Republic, in an engineering revival based on renewable energy and a smart electric grid.

Titanic Quarter should not be a backward-looking theme park of vacant lots, but a buzzing hub of 21st-century engineering prowess.

That means, thirdly, that Stormont needs to fund a step-change in support for research and development.

It's far too low for most Northern Ireland firms to innovate. Yet the region is disengaged from the big-ticket European Union 'FP7' research programme.

And, fourth, advanced technical education must be supported as a central career path for school-leavers, rather than the current, class-based divide into academic sheep and hewers-of-wood goats.

Brookeborough's engagement with the wider world was to go on leisurely cruises.

When it comes to understanding how regions survive in a global economic environment, his Stormont successors are all at sea.

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