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People of Northern Ireland need to be more like Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement


Thousands of pro-democracy activists take part in a march in Hong Kong (AP)

Thousands of pro-democracy activists take part in a march in Hong Kong (AP)

Thousands of pro-democracy activists take part in a march in Hong Kong (AP)

"We should be able to construct an economic strategy for Northern Ireland which can turn it into a mini Hong Kong."

So said Sir Richard Needham, who was a Direct Rule Minister during the 80s and 90s.

His words are something of a double-edged sword. He is, of course, entirely right. We need a radical economic strategy for Northern Ireland which has ambitious aims for our region, rather than a cautious, business-as-usual approach.

If the Northern Ireland economy is to be meaningfully rebalanced, with a much enlarged private sector, we do need to be thinking along the lines Needham suggests.

There is, however, an aspect to the comparison with Hong Kong which is much more uncomfortable.  The pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Hong Kong know only too well that its constitution falls far short of democratic government.  The people of Hong Kong can freely vote for members of their legislative assembly - but they can't change their government.

Sound familiar?  Okay, it's important that we don't overdo things.  Northern Ireland is a free society, in which fundamental rights and freedoms are guaranteed for all citizens.  We have a democratically-elected government at Westminster overseeing the United Kingdom, not the Communist Party of China, with its hideous human rights record.

Where there is a similarity is in the stark fact that we in Northern Ireland cannot change our regional government.  We can - occasionally - alter the balance of power between the parties in the Executive.  One less seat there, one more seat here.  But that is it.  It's a cosy arrangement: irrespective of how the election goes, the main parties can be guaranteed that they will have a seat in government.

What we in Northern Ireland need, then, is to be more like Hong Kong in terms of our economic ambitions, and more like the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement in our desire for real change in how we are governed.  A government that cannot be changed by the ballot box - and challenged by an official Opposition - won't deliver the change Northern Ireland needs in economic direction.

2015 could be the year in which we have the opportunity to press for this change. The Stormont House Agreement - while not offering a real prospect of an Official Opposition - at least recognises that change is necessary.

My own Private Member's Bill to reform the Assembly and Executive will be debated by the Assembly this year.  If the other parties are serious about changing how Stormont works (or doesn't work), they will have the opportunity to support the Bill and deliver real change. 

It won't turn us into a dynamic regional economy overnight or in the short-term, but it would give us a political system more capable of taking the bold decisions that the Northern Ireland economy badly needs.

Belfast Telegraph