Leading businessman Colin Anderson and Professor Deirdre Heenan of the Ulster University have been asked by the shadow Secretary of State to chair a commission looking at ways of improving unemployment, low salaries and helping communties still impacted by the Troubles. Here, they explain what they hope to achieve.
The Heenan-Anderson Commission is a pioneering attempt to tackle inequality, worklessness and marginalisation in Northern Ireland. It will investigate and report to the UK Labour Party on how the Westminster Government can collaborate with the Northern Ireland Executive to improve opportunities for those who are currently on the margins of society and have no stake in the economy.
Its aim is simple: to identify practical measures, which have the capacity to make a transformational difference. Solutions will require partnership and contributions from public, private and civil society organisations. Their role will be to empower and motivate not only the next generation but also the current generation that a better future in a new Northern Ireland is genuinely available to all.
We have been asked to chair this commission by the shadow Secretary of State and Labour Party spokesperson for Northern Ireland. He has rightly identified worklessness and inter-generational deprivation as two of the most significant challenges facing our society and potential obstacles to making substantial progress on our vision for a shared future.
We come to this task with different perspectives but shared values. One of us as a self-made businessperson, who understands the opportunities and challenges of starting and growing a business, the other as an academic and leader in the field of higher education who wants participation and access to skills development to be at the heart of our approach to economic prosperity and social justice.
We will be supported in our work by a panel of experts that represents the brightest and best in Northern Ireland, across a range of sectors and life experiences. From community work and education to business and economics to academia and trade unionism, we believe that such diversity of expertise will help to bring rigour and clarity to our findings.
The commission has already attracted support from Northern Ireland's political parties; we have been delighted by the reaction of various Ministers and MLAs.
It is hoped that the independent nature of the commission will help us to cross political divides and unite those with a passion for solving inequality across Northern Ireland and perhaps even the UK, in a set of forward-thinking principles. We were heartened by the immensely successful launch of the commission a fortnight ago.
As people born and bred in Northern Ireland and who witness the day-to-day struggles that our society faces, the focus of our work has never been more important.
A typical employee in Northern Ireland has the lowest gross weekly earnings of any UK region, and has seen wages fall for the second year in a row.
Northern Ireland continues to have the highest claimant count and inactivity rate of any region in the UK. Twenty per cent of 18-24-year olds were unemployed for the period July-September 2014 (DETI Nov 2014 figures) compared with 14.2% across the UK (youth unemployment statistics - Commons Library).
One in six workers is low-paid, a quarter earning below the living wage. One child in five lives in poverty in Northern Ireland and forecasts suggest that this may be on the rise.
Growth in Northern Ireland is sluggish in comparison to that in the rest of the UK and it is falling short of its potential.
This is why we are launching the commission. The economic downturn has affected the entire UK, but in post-conflict society the stakes are much higher.
Many on the peripheries of our communities see themselves as losers not winners from the changes we have seen since the end of the Troubles and have not benefited from the peace dividend they were promised. They have been left behind and trapped in a vicious cycle of negativity.
This inequality directly rooted in inter-generational deprivation can be the breeding ground for extremism.
There is a solution to this. Through the findings we uncover and the recommendations that we will make, we hope to tackle some long-term fundamental issues and offer new hope to these communities.
The commission will analyse the current policies being pursued by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Westminster Government.
It will focus on the impact of a rebalanced economy where there is a much greater equilibrium between public and private sectors.
Emphasis will be placed on global companies but assurance will be given to the growth of small and medium-sized business, recognising the need for enhanced quality and efficiency.
We will address issues of early childhood development, educational attainment, skills, business start-ups and jobs of the future together with sustainable city driven growth and new opportunities for the rural economy. The end-goal is to create a dynamic environment that pushes the economy forward and attracts global investment, not uncertainty.
The work of the commission will run from now until the end of February, and will publish its recommendations in early springtime.
We are currently in listening mode and are welcoming submissions until January 31, 2015. We invite individuals and groups from all sectors of society to offer up opinions on the key issues affecting our population today and constructive ideas for combating them.
The panel will be visiting an array of different grassroots organisations across communities such as schools, universities, charities and trusts, and we ask for recommendations on visits.
We aim to gather a record of projects that have helped or hindered different communities so that we can establish case studies of best practice and use these to inform our findings.
Our aim is to ensure that every individual can see the prospects and potential open to them within Northern Ireland and seek to build their lives here for the foreseeable future.