Why business really needs to get involved in politics to help solve current impasse
After the general election the local political agenda will change. The current stand-off in the political debate should not be allowed to drift, allowing the all-to frequent repetition of standard phrases with predictable responses. The political crisis should not be viewed passively. It is causing economic and social damage, allowing government budget problems to worsen and eroding the credibility of Northern Ireland to potential investors. These are unwelcome effects just as Invest NI is trying to win hearts and minds with a new business strategy.
Leading voices in business have been encouraging political parties to show accommodating leadership, a sense of strategic direction and positive efforts in developing better working relationships. The collective voice of business, along with the voluntary and community sectors, has challenged the politicians to find an acceptable political agenda, even to compromise with uncomfortable decisions.
Without detracting from the sensible sentiments expressed by senior business leaders, the situation is becoming so much more serious, to everyone's cost, that there is a need (and scope) for stronger actions. The business community has, until now, made a deliberate effort 'not to get involved in politics'. That stance, starting from a sensible pragmatic approach, needs to be stiffened.
Assuming that the politicians do wish to resolve the difficulties and find a way forward consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, a more positive structured role from the business leaders could be helpful. If this was an industrial scene, there would be suggestions of recourse to conciliation and/or mediation. Given the current intractable stand-off, some quiet private conversations should explore where possible options could be developed. At first sight this suggestion of an active involvement to seek conciliation, from outside party political sources or from London or Dublin, is an attempt to find a game changer. That reaction may be too cautious if the language of conciliation is to be used with an acceptable sense of purpose.
In essence, what is being suggested is that from the private sector the persuasion should move from a policy of asking political leaders to 'do the right thing' to a set of policies that are more forceful in asking and suggesting what the right thing might be. Phrased more strongly, this is a recommendation that the expertise of business leaders should be applied using negotiation skills to examine the issues and find the common ground that underpins the Good Friday Agreement. In many boardrooms and workshops, everyday conversations regularly explore people's understanding of acceptable answers to questions of defining and protecting civil rights and ensuring equality of treatment for citizens, freedom and respect for the use of the Irish language, tackling the human and judicial challenges of unfinished legacy questions, and the scope for special arrangements after Brexit to maintain a near-seamless border.
The dilemma caused by the mistakes in the Renewable Heat Incentive also calls for a quiet agreement to differ. At the right level, if questions cannot be readily answered, then mechanisms (and time) to negotiate answers become an interim but necessary step. In principle, there would be little objection to the identification of an agenda of rights questions, a mechanism to find a balanced approach that gives the Irish language a formal place, setting a Brexit agenda that builds on business interests and a general willingness to work co-operatively in a power-sharing environment.
As a facilitating agenda, leaving room for suitable adaptations, that should not be impossible. From that starting point, conciliation leaders must stand willing to develop further refinements that, with good intentions, help the political leaders to take steps to build enduring answers. Success would earn major benefits for the whole community. The cost of continuing failure is too high to contemplate.