Belfast Telegraph

Why we need to get down to business

By Barry White

How I long for the days when there is nothing happening, and no anniversary to celebrate, in Northern Ireland. No tenth birthdays, no hands of history, no investment conferences, no New York pension funds, no peace money, no public inquiries, no policing and justice standoffs, no nothing. Not even self-congratulation by former peacemakers.

Does that mean I'm tired of living here? I don't think so, I have a feeling I'm not alone. (Oh yes, and I wish I never saw or, worse still, heard another Big Issue seller wailing at me when I go to the shops, or the city centre, or anywhere. Could the Assembly not arrange compensation for the Mr Bigs, who leave them off in 4X4s?)

Soon there will be no Ian Paisley, (though there will always be Ian jnr) no Bertie Ahern, and already there is no Peter Hain and no Tony Blair, who is trying to make us forget Iraq by giving multiple interviews about his Big Success in Northern Ireland.

Does it not upset you, just a little, when people like Blair say that just because you talked to the IRA doesn't mean you can talk to Hamas or Al Qaeda?

In Basra, there was talking to the extremist militias, so much that the Iraqi PM planned his offensive there without the British; and when he ran into difficulties he called in the Americans instead. Now the shops can sell alcohol and pop records again.

The past week has been a peace-fest, as everyone who ever saw the inside of Castle Buildings has been telling us how the temperature went up and down 10 years ago and how rude David Trimble could be. (A lot.) I was outside for a while, mixing with the Jeremy Paxmans and Jon Snows, but soon discovered I could be warmer and better informed at home.

Anyway, we've had more than our share of the limelight recently, with ridiculous parallels being drawn between our peace process and others', and it's time we forgot the past and got down to business.

I hope those who are coming to the US investment conference are doing their homework, as we speak, and even if they can't invest just now, will let us know what's wrong with our economy, rather than preparing to marvel at the fact we aren't killing each other.

We haven't got a real economy, of course, being dependent for 70% of our income on the British taxpayer, so what should we be doing to generate wealth and jobs?

The best example is south of the border, or the USA itself, so how are we to get our entrepreneurs out of the public service, property development and the legal profession into their own high-risk, high-earning businesses?

And I don't mean putting their money into the purchase of public assets, for private profit, which could be one way that the £75m New York funds are spent.

Provided there is public gain in better-run facilities, that's ok, but I was reading about complaints following the privatisation of a 157-mile toll road in Indiana, now run by an Australian-Spanish consortium. If we would only put the £10bn that arrives in the post to better use, and cut out some of the sectarian duplication, we mightn't need all this overseas aid.

We'd get along with a smaller Assembly and executive, Troubles tourism would decline, and firms that actually make things, like buses in Ballymena and aircraft seating in Kilkeel, would inspire budding inventors. As a small region, with a crazy level of bureaucracy, we have to be linked to a bigger country and a bigger tax system. At present, it's with Britain, which pays our way, but there are plenty of business people who like the look of the Irish system and joined the clamour for the adoption of Ireland's 12.5% corporation tax.

The new Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, has said he hopes that the logic of an all-island economy will be accepted, in time. For a start, nationalists would have to prove to unionists that they'd be better off in a different regime — and that they would have all the regional autonomy they would want, in a Stormont that wasn't obsessed about its British or Irish identity. Once those conditions were on offer, the real debate might begin.

Meanwhile, we're getting bogged down in all the problem areas that were foreseen back in 1998 and 2006, but were left to posterity, like the 11-plus, dealing with victims, and policing and justice. More deals, which won't satisfy everyone, are coming.

As for the calls for transfer of policing powers, has anyone calculated the cost to ratepayers if Gordon Brown won't cough up?

In England, the Government is worried by sharp rises in the 'policing element' of council tax bills, which could be payable here.

Some households in the D band, who pay an average £1,200 in rates, will see an 80% rise this year to £235 for policing.

They also pay water charges, but single-person households get 25% discount, unavailable here ...

Belfast Telegraph


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