Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

We can't afford to continue to count the cost of division

Northern Ireland's economy is crying out for a shared future that will be beneficial to us all, says Ben Collins

The cost of division to Northern Ireland each year is about five times as high as the likely impact on the block grant from any reduction in corporation tax. It is several times more than the bill we would incur to upgrade our water infrastructure.

Rightly, there has been a lot of concern and debate about the other two issues - is lowering corporation tax worth a £300m annual reduction in the Executive's budget? How do we fund the investment needed to bring our water infrastructure up to standard?

But we haven't heard quite as much concern being expressed about how much division costs. At up to £1.5bn-per-annum, it should certainly be one of the major issues of the Assembly election.

The fact is that sectarian division is a defining feature of Northern Ireland, determining where people live, are educated, work and socialise. It also has a major bearing on how public money is spent. Are these the features of a society that is going to maximise its economic potential?

There's the obvious point that addressing division has a natural synergy with a reduction in corporation tax. Lower taxation alone won't attract the large international organisations that it is targeted at.

Northern Ireland needs to demonstrate that it is a modern, peaceful, integrated, shared and cohesive society as well. In this respect, the legacy of division will continue to undermine efforts to attract investment to Northern Ireland.

In addition to reducing Northern Ireland's appeal to foreign investment, division also deters potential leisure and business tourism, prolongs poverty in interface communities, leads to enormous duplication and prolongs the 'brain-drain' which has seen an exodus of talented people for years.

Northern Ireland needs to retain its best people for the long term. If we don't address the causes of ongoing violence, conflict and social division, are we really going to be able to do that? Or are we going to see the continuation of the brain-drain that has been so debilitating for so long?

Northern Ireland also needs to make best use of its limited resources. Are we doing this if we are funding duplicate provision across our public services?

There is a huge amount of money spent 'servicing' division that could certainly be put to much better, much more productive use in the interests of everyone.

There are also more hidden effects of division - too numerous to go into here in full. But consider this as one of many: large numbers of people have to travel further due to the segregated nature of society here (avoiding particular areas for reasons of safety, for instance), therefore using more energy than is necessary.

With fuel prices so high, this is an added cost to our society that should not be discounted.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) believes that creating a vibrant and sustainable economy can only be achieved by creating a shared society.

For this reason, RICS is committed to a shared future, including shared spaces, shared amenities and resources as a key tool in promoting tolerance and inclusion and in creating a better future for all.

Achieving a shared future will require significant input from all government departments and agencies, as well as many other stakeholders in society. It will take a significant amount of time and effort.

But we think this is essential. Given the huge cost of division, is there any other alternative?

We certainly believe that the case for a shared future stands on its own merits and, given the current financial situation, we believe there is, indeed, an added imperative to commit energies post the election to devising a Programme for Government that has, at its base, a strategy for addressing division.

Northern Ireland will reap the benefits well into the future.

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