Glyn Roberts: Why Northern Ireland deserves better than this hate-filled election
So, just how bad do things have to get before our political parties do a deal and get back to work, asks Glyn Roberts
I was totally naive to hope that this general election in Northern Ireland might actually start to focus on how to grow our economy, fix our health service and meet the huge challenges facing education. Of course, I am wrong, because this election is now probably the nastiest, bitterest, most sectarian and largely policy-free ever in Northern Ireland.
Most of the parties' media coverage of the election has been focused on issues such as Brexit, border polls and the omnipresent "vote for me or you'll get them" rhetoric that continues to plague any election here. Yes, I totally accept that Brexit is a large elephant in the room for voters, but so is the future of our economy, the health service, climate change and schools.
Jeremy Corbyn, in his Labour party manifesto, correctly summed what this general election should be about: "Some people say this is the Brexit election. But it's also the climate election, the investment election, the NHS election, the living standards election, the education election, the poverty election, the fair taxes election. Above all, it's the change election."
However, not in Northern Ireland.
It is policy and prosperity, rather than pacts and personalities that the business community wants to see in this election campaign. Retail NI members will - rightly - ask candidates how they intend to progress the City Growth Deals, why Northern Ireland has the highest business rates in the UK and what are their plans for investing in our town and city centres.
How do we make Northern Ireland the best place in the UK and Ireland to shop, socialise, locate and to start a business? What do we need to do to make Northern Ireland an eco-system of innovation?
We also should not forget that Westminster pays the bills for running Northern Ireland. It has responsibility for key areas of taxation, including VAT, income tax, corporation tax and many others. It is, therefore, essential that we elect 18 MPs who are articulate and effective champions for Northern Ireland plc.
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Regrettably, in the absence of Stormont, the Secretary of State sets the local Budget and decides on the regional rate. Retail NI wants to see the new Government, or incoming Executive, implement a 5%-10% reduction in the regional rate for all local businesses in Northern Ireland, boosting our economy and high streets.
Given that small businesses in the rest of the UK pay a lot less rates than their Northern Ireland counterparts, this reduction is not an unreasonable ask.
Getting back to elephants in the room during this election, the absence of Stormont and local ministers for the last three years is an absolute scandal. Just how bad do things have to get before our political parties get a deal and get back to work?
Do hospital waiting lists actually need to get even higher? Do our schools need to run out of money completely? Or, indeed, how many jobs need to be lost before we see local ministers back at Stormont taking the big decisions, which affect our population on a day-to-day basis?
Now more than ever, we need our political leaders to lead the way with big, bold solutions and to take the difficult decisions.
Real leaders do not see problems; they seek solutions. I am not saying for one minute that a rapid return of the Executive would solve all these problems, but it would, surely, be a huge step forward?
The business community has not just been sitting idly back and highlighting the problems we face in Northern Ireland - we have been providing solutions and new thinking to move our economy forward.
Retail NI, Hospitality Ulster and Manufacturing NI recently formed a new coalition, Trade NI, which is now Northern Ireland's largest business collective, committed to a radical rethink of our economic policy.
We launched at Westminster a big, bold and ambitious 10-year plan for the future of the Northern Ireland economy, setting out what we need to achieve by 2030.
Our Vision 2030 document sets out ambitious objectives and challenges for a rebooted, re-energised economy, creating 65,000 new jobs to make Northern Ireland the gateway to the European Union and a truly global-facing region.
Retail NI believes in a strong, diverse and sustainable economy, which is essential for a prosperous society, vibrant communities and well-funded public services.
Providing an environment where business can thrive and grow is imperative to the strength of our economy; reducing the cost of doing business, reforming business rates, investing in our infrastructure, developing skills, increasing our productivity, finding innovative new ways of stimulating investment, revitalising our communities and creating an economy which can deliver for working families.
We want to work in new ways and beyond traditional boundaries, reaching out to all business organisations, chambers of commerce, trade unions and voluntary sector representation to create a new, progressive partnership for change in Northern Ireland, collaborating to support Government by bringing solutions to them and not problems, creating a true partnership between civic society and government.
But if we are ever to break the cycle of limited economic growth, realise our true potential and deliver that step change Northern Ireland so desperately needs, then we need a major investment by the British government (and possibly the Irish government and the EU) to make this happen; to enable a new Stormont administration to tackle all of these challenges a Prosperity Investment Fund should be established as part of a new Good Friday Agreement for the 21st century.
I respect anyone who actually takes the initiative and stands for election in Northern Ireland, but we can't go on with a dysfunctional political system that is all about division, Orange v Green and keeping people out.
Is it really naive to think that, at some point in the future, we could mature and have elections which focus on the economy, health service and schools?
Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI