Mixing with the radicals
On my travels — not least to Dublin for a fair taxation symposium on Friday and then to Wexford for the 39th annual Dublin Economics Conference — I often meet people who are intimidated by the scale of the challenge facing us as we work to transform the economy of the North of Ireland.
And, indeed, the challenge is daunting.
In terms of economic output per capita across the EU, the North is at just 82 per cent of the average — which puts us on a par with Slovenia, a young state which emerged from the economic rubble of the former Yugoslavia.
We don’t do so well when compared to our closest neigbhours. Despite the torrid property crash and subsequent Great Recession, the recovery in the South of Ireland means the average GDP there is now 134 per cent of the EU average.
Of course the recovery in the South has been uneven and there is a large question mark over the reliability of its GDP reporting, but nevertheless the contrast between the southern and northern economies is stark: in the South, the average wage is €37,000, in the North, around €25,500. Closing the gaps, even getting the North to the EU average will be a battle but one that’s worth waging.
The starting point has to be to raise the pace of economic growth in the North. Growth this year is predicted to be 1 per cent, just 0.2 per cent in 2017. Conversely, south off the border, the economy is growing at around five per cent — the fastest growth rate in Europe.
It’s clear that treading water isn’t good enough if we want to move from a Division B, scrappy, punching-above-its-weight economy with patches of excellence and a reservoir of talent to a Champions League European regional powerhouse.
That’s why I am arguing for a radical ramping up of investment to transform our economic fortunes. Some of our actions will of necessity be defensive: we need to Remain in the European Union and we must halt the continuing cuts from London to our day-to-day budgets — due to be slashed by over four per cent in real terms between now and 2020.
But the rest is in our hands – and in the hands of our neighbours across the Border. For it’s only by developing a truly All-Ireland economy that we can bring about the surge in productivity and create the shared and prosperous society we aim for. And that’s not political point-scoring, it’s economic common-sense.
We shouldn’t be deterred by the heavy lifting which lies ahead. After all, we are the people who built the peace; prosperity is just the other foot falling. Let’s take courage from our own resolve and determination to change.
As Rosa Parks said: “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
Whatever struggles lie ahead they are but nought compared to the challenges which lymphona and leukaemia research campaigner Tim Page faces every day. I was delighted to join Tim as he ran the last of 22 Park Runs which take place across the North each Saturday morning. “I discovered the park run community while recovering from an autologous stem cell transplant — aggressive treatment of aggressive lymphoma for the fourth time in my life,” say Tim. And the park runners discovered Tim! His bravery was inspiring as he made it across the line to huge cheers from supporters and fellow-runners at Stormont.
Finally, I sneaked into the back pew at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church earlier today to hear the Rev Steve Stockman give a bravura sermon on any finance minister’s favourite topic: money. Uplifting as the sermon was, even more heartening was the selfless generosity of the Fitzroy faithful as evidenced through their work with the Presbyterian International Meeting Point (which is appealing for bikes to give to asylum seekers) and the South Belfast FoodBank. You can see more about the life-saving work of the Trussell Trust here. Worth saying again: the most radical people I know are in churches on a Sunday and preaching the Gospel without using words throughout the rest of the week.