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Economic policies 'key for the voters' of Northern Ireland


The economy is key for voters

The economy is key for voters

The economy is key for voters

The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (Nicva) has made a valuable start in examining how far the electorate in Northern Ireland understands the choices that go into the make-up of economic policy for the Stormont Executive and Assembly. Interestingly, the electorate say that they regard economic policy as more important than the conventional 'national' allegiance questions.

Even though normal elections are contested with national allegiance as the primary determinant of voting actions, behind this issue there lies a concern and understanding that economic questions are a significant motivating force -- 68% of replies said that a party's economic policies were important, while 13% disagreed. But when asked to assess the merits of the economic policies of the main political parties (without specifying which policies stand out and why), the response showed that only 33% agreed that the local political parties had a good knowledge of economics and economic policy.

Indirectly, this contrast could be taken as a major criticism of the lack of precision in statements by the parties of their economic policies. That reaction gives insufficient credit to the formal Programme for Government and its associated statement of economic policies. The formal programme is more a statement of ambition rather than a worked set of operational actions.

In a related observation, the public response to a question asking people to say where their individual assessment of 'right' versus 'left' in the political spectrum lies, 41% placed themselves in the 'centre' and 34% did not know. This ambiguity gives some comfort to the political parties in that it leaves most of the electorate taking a pragmatic view on economic issues. Unfortunately, being pragmatic can be a long way short of being consistent and coherent.

For reassurance, the dilemma on unclear political philosophies applies similarly to Protestant and Catholic voters.

In the 'left' versus 'right' spectrum, there is no surprise that 36% of the sample regard Sinn Fein as left wing and 34% regard the DUP as right wing. The highest score in this three way classification goes to 38% who see Alliance as being in the centre. Again, the people responding to the inquiry confirm that even though there is something of a contrast between Sinn Fein and the DUP, this is not a clear cut big ideological difference.

For this assessment of public opinion, unfortunately Nicva stops short of posing specific policy choices. If the economy is a priority, as ministers in the Executive maintain, we are not any clearer on which policy options command support to incentivise or leverage a better economic outcome. Arguably, there needs to be a better informed debate about issues such as devolution of corporation tax, changes to planning rules, the enhancement of skills and apprenticeship provision, and public sector investment priorities. None of these is offered for assessment or statements of preference.

Nicva's inquiry is silent on the wider debate about tensions between social, environmental and economic policies. Ministers are regularly making decisions which reflect their priorities. In a future opinion poll there would be merit in asking well directed questions on policy options.

Stopping short of giving clear policy guidance, the Nicva review does offer a useful insight on the way in which people react to the (non-specified) economic policies of the main parties.

The answers give little comfort to the largest parties. Only 29% of the replies said that the DUP could be trusted: 41% said that they were not trusted. For Sinn Fein only 21% said that it could be trusted and 48% said that they were not to be trusted.

No party was said to be trusted by over 50% of the replies. The highest total was 36% for the SDLP.

In a parallel question, 55% of replies said that the business community could be trusted and, disappointingly, 45% said economists could be trusted! That sounds worrying?