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SDLP sets out four principles to economic revival

Matthew O'Toole


An empty Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre during lockdown

An empty Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre during lockdown

An empty Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre during lockdown

None of us know how long it will be before our economy is operating in the way it was before Covid-19 struck. But we should be asking whether our economy should operate in the way it did before. If crises do anything useful, they force us to confront long-term challenges.

The local economy has had major structural flaws for years, but successive Executives have failed to address them. We are the among the most unproductive regions in these islands. Our education system produces poor outcomes for far too many - especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds - we export a high proportion of both school leavers and graduates. As a result, our skills base is low and the cycle is reinforced by our tendency to settle for low value-adding foreign direct investment.

Add to this the devastating impacts of Covid-19, Brexit and the climate emergency, we can no longer delay a serious conversation on long-term economic priorities.

We have yet to see anything approaching a credible vision from the Executive. We need strategy, not just ad-libbed gestures and platitudes. To move the debate on, the SDLP has published four key principles to inform how we can change our economy for the better.

First, we need a new deal for our young people. The recent exam fiasco is one example of how young people are suffering from the effects of this virus. Graduates are entering a chilly jobs market and many young people employed in retail or manufacturing face job losses. The Executive needs to guarantee training for all young people and needs to produce a skills strategy for our whole economy focusing on low carbon and digital technology.

Next, we need a new connectivity - for our people and our places. My colleague, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, is working with counterparts on the feasibility of high speed rail connection joining Belfast to Dublin and Cork and has announced a panel to look at a new Infrastructure Commission.

Faster broadband could open rural towns and villages up to the possibilities of remote working in the post-Covid world.

We are also calling for a new sustainability in both travel and commerce. Our party is already delivering on green and active travel in the infrastructure department. But it also means policies that protect independent traders and local pubs and cafes hit by Covid.

Lastly, a fiscal commission could recommend new tools to raise, and if necessary, borrow funds to invest. The Executive, led by the Department of Finance, needs to come up with a strategic investment plan to ensure that money is spent effectively. And of course, we need urgent clarity on how the Executive plans to enable NI businesses to maximise the benefit from preferential access to both EU and UK markets.

A new deal for young people, new localism, new sustainability and new powers - four principles for our economy in the long-term.

The SDLP has just turned 50, but rather than commemoration we are focused on the challenges of the next half-century. In the next few months, we will face an enormous economic shock. The least we owe people - especially our young people - is serious thinking about the kind of economy we want to construct afterwards.

Matthew O'Toole is SDLP MLA for South Belfast

Belfast Telegraph