Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Viewpoint: A working model for jobs creation?

Coming from anyone but Dr Alan Gillespie, chairman of the Ulster Bank and a former chairman of the IDB, the proposal that Invest Northern Ireland should merge with the Republic's IDA would be interesting, but not remarkable. It is because of his expertise as a financier and his experience of marketing Northern Ireland overseas that his suggestion is being taken so seriously.

He has studied both organisations, north and south, and his conclusion is that the two countries could benefit from a joined-up all-Ireland approach. The obvious conclusion is that without such co-operation, Northern Ireland will continue to lag far behind its neighbour.

Dr Gillespie, who comes from a unionist background, would be well aware of the political reaction. Nationalists are delighted that such an eminent figure should be advocating a single development agency - modelled on Tourism Ireland - while unionists can see the thin edge of a united Ireland wedge.

Yet someone who knows how business works believes that the advantages for both countries would outweigh any negative political considerations. His assessment, borne out by results, is that the IDA is the "best in class" and that INI "still has some catching up to do". A merger would stimulate economic growth throughout the island, he says.

That is one well-qualified businessman's opinion but, of course, the politicians on both sides of the border think differently. They jealously guard the jobs they have, or hope to have, in their constituencies and will see plenty of reasons to avoid competition from another jurisdiction.

Unionists, in particular, fear that closer economic unity, even if it only involves inward investment, would lead to political unity. All nationalists would be expected to welcome a merger, but the Irish government would be reluctant, to say the least, to lose jobs to Northern Ireland.

The reality is that although both parts of Ireland are constantly scouring the world for investment, the Republic has consistently been more successful. The IDA has an international reputation - hence the large number of American companies with Irish bases - while Invest NI has to battle with laws and taxes designed for the United Kingdom.

As the whole world knows, the difference between corporation tax in the Republic and Northern Ireland is huge - 12.5% compared to 30%. The fact that few companies pay the full amount here does not impress the major players, who are attracted by the all-in service provided by the IDA, accompanied by Euro membership.

Both would have to be dealt with, as part of any merger, but they need not create an insuperable obstacle. Tourism Ireland is an example of how the separate interests of both countries can be merged, in a common campaign. Dr Gillespie's suggestion is not a certain winner, but it is certainly worth exploring in detail.

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