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Our manifesto for a fresh start in Northern Ireland

The province’s divisions have cost us dearly, both in blood and economically, writes Liam Clarke. This election needs to be about jobs, schools and better government

As an independent voice, the Belfast Telegraph won’t be backing any single party in this election. We’ll be holding them all to account without fear or favour.

But that doesn’t mean we have no opinion on the sort of society we need.

We want a Northern Ireland that is fair as well as prosperous, that cares for its weakest members but also encourages enterprise and excellence.

It must be a society where families will feel at ease and young people will want to put down roots.

That means a more shared society where cultural differences are respected, but don't dominate our lives.

Our past divisions cost us dear in blood and treasure — human life as well as hard cash.

Now we need to move beyond the politics of carve-up and division to the politics of sharing.

Sharing facilities and resources both within Northern Ireland and, in some cases, cross-border can free up money to invest in the services we need.

Vague promises aren’t enough. Politicians need to show how they will pay for every policy and they need to demonstrate best value for money. We want to see all parties in this election address serious issues such as these below.

POLICIES NOT FLAG WAVING The tone of this election is important. The Belfast Telegraph urges all parties to avoid sectarian sloganeering, siege-mentality politics, the rehearsal of historical grievances. We need positive policies for the entire community, not intransigent posturing.

JOBS Let’s turn Northern Ireland into a real enterprise zone where businesses, local enterprises as well as multinationals, can flourish. That means giving Northern Ireland devolved powers to alter its rate of corporation tax and removing obstacles to growth by speeding up planning procedures and giving our young people the skills that industry demands.

LEANER, FITTER GOVERNMENT We have proportionately far more full-time representatives than any other region and our 108 MLAs spend too much time wrangling. We don’t need so many ministers at Stormont, we don’t need 26 councils and we don't need every single party to be in government all the time. At a time of cuts, no party can avoid this issue.

MORE SHARING Divided facilities — from schools to health centres and leisure complexes — aren’t best value for money and they drive people apart. Spending that fosters division needs to be questioned everywhere it occurs.

SCHOOLS BUILT AROUND CHILDREN AND COMMUNITIES Falling school rolls provide an opportunity to bring our children together. Fully integrated schools provide one route. Providing existing schools with incentives to share facilities and teachers is another way to offer our children a shared future, more choice and state-of- the-art facilities. Sharing campuses can help defuse the row over the transfer procedure. If schools pool resources every child will have an opportunity to try the best that is on offer.

PUBLIC UTILITIES WE CAN DEPEND ON Last winter our water system failed us, leaving people queuing at standpipes as if we were a Third World country. The issue of water charges to fund improvements must be discussed in this election. Politicians who dismiss the idea should say how they will pay the bill.

GOVERNMENT THAT USES ITS MUSCLE FOR CONSUMERS Stormont, the quangos and the councils put a lot of our money into banks and power companies. They must use this spending power on our behalf. That means favouring banks who are prepared to lend to growing businesses and bearing down on utility companies to cut costs.

ENERGY THAT NEEDN’T COST THE EARTH The high prices we pay for electricity, home heating oil, petrol and diesel are crippling industry and impoverishing households. In the long-term we have got to move away from our reliance on oil; renewable options should be pursued. In the meantime the Executive must move to regulate the fuel supply industry and ensure real competition. The present postcode lottery in oil and fuel charges is indefensible.

JUSTICE THAT SERVES PEOPLE, NOT JUST LAWYERS The criminal justice system must be slimmed down so that resources go where they are really needed. Court costs are higher here than other regions; they must be brought into line. We must reduce the £90,000 a year cost of keeping a prisoner in jail by cutting the number of prison officers and streamlining administration.

SECURITY Keeping the terrorist threat at bay is a priority. We must have enough police officers and they must be well enough funded to do it without giving up on the fight against anti-social behaviour.

HEALTH With an ageing population the demands on our health service will increase. Spending must be protected. Administrative overheads are inevitable, but every penny spent on them must promote the delivery of frontline services to patients. Politicians must justify pet projects against other priorities and explain where the money is coming from, as well as where it is going.

Belfast Telegraph

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