On Thursday 26 May, the Community Relations Council hosted ‘Reconciling the Books: The Economic Case for Sharing’. The event, chaired by BBC’s Yvette Shapiro, saw community and political leaders come together to discuss what Northern Ireland needs for a stable economic future.
Opening the conference, Tony Kennedy, chair of CRC’s policy and communications committee, spoke of the need to make community relations part of a government programme. He described how mutual agreement and relevant dialogue will aid prosperity. Mr Kennedy also spoke of how deprivation and segregation run in tandem, with the poorest in Northern Ireland’s communities suffering the most. He spoke of the desire on either side to remove barriers. Mr Kennedy also alerted the audience to the fact that a competitive market depends on attractiveness, not just the fact that ‘we have stopped killing each other’. He also went on to say that the best and brightest would not choose to live in a city divided by walls. Mr Kennedy advised: ‘You do work to create a shared society then the floodgates will open’. Mr Kennedy finished his opening remarks by stressing that while we remain a divided society we remain an unattractive society.
Mark Magill (Oxford Economics) demonstrated Northern Ireland’s economic case for sharing. His figures confirmed a grim reality that over half a million people are economically inactive. Participants were shown that Northern Ireland holds nine of the top ten areas of unemployment in the UK. Education, transport and housing were outlined as essential areas needing development. Mr Magill spoke of the huge amounts of saving to be made from small adjustments, including the economic and social benefits of enhanced sharing. He also spoke of how Northern Ireland is still in the process of ‘catching up’, post ceasefires. For example, Northern Ireland’s tourism market is slow but has potential to grow. The overwhelmingly economic focus of Mr Magill’s talk set a precedent for the rest of the day: changes will be tough but achievable, and everyone will have a role to play in making the economy stronger.
The next keynote speaker was Ben Collins from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. Mr Collins’ focused on regeneration and sustainability cemented the idea of division being at the root of Northern Ireland’s economic problems. He put the case that Northern Ireland’s segregation costs the economy £1 billion a year, and that cuts over the next four years amount to £4 billion. As an example, Mr Collins described Northern Ireland’s bus service as being hugely wasteful and damaging, both to the economy and environment. Those attending were shocked to learn that if everyone used electricity the way Northern Ireland does, we would need three planets! He reiterated previous speakers’ points about the need to attract and retain skilled workers. The rest of Mr Collins’ talk focused on case studies that set the issues facing the wider community into real life situations. There was again focus on the need to enhance shared spaces for everyone, and the huge savings to be made by investing in projects that promoted these.
Qwizdom — an interactive voting system — proved a successful opportunity for conference attendees to participate in meaningful debate on key issues. There were some interesting results and passionate responses from audience members about the needs of the different communities throughout Northern Ireland. Audience members were almost equally split on whether or not there should be a target date for interface barriers to come down. Almost all of the audience were in agreement that the legacy of conflict still affected their day-to-day lives, and confidence in the Executive’s ability to deliver on conflict was very low.
Following Qwizdom was a video montage from the panel of the day. Panel representatives were: Grainia Long (Chartered institute of Housing), Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie, Anne Hardy and Roisin McGlone. Each coming from a background rooted in the day’s discussions, the panel provided diverse opinion on what was needed to bolster Northern Ireland’s economy. As well as responding to the results of Qwizdom, panel members discussed in detail the benefits and potential problems with shared housing. They also stressed the importance of involvement and decision making at grassroots and community levels. They added that we should not just pay attention to poorer communities because of the problems they face, but because of the solutions they can provide. Responding from audience comments that as a society we can be dismissive of younger generations, the Deputy Police Constable was adamant that there must be greater commitment to young people in order to resolve social problems; panel members also discussed the role that social networking sites could have in this interaction. The panel stressed that the economy has huge potential, but the issues at community level — including children, housing, education, policing and young people — would be key to any progress.
Dr Robin Wilson, an independent political analyst, discussed the role politics has in finding solutions and improvements to Northern Ireland’s economy, in his talk entitled “The political economy of ‘community relations’”. He alerted participants to the fact that the first full assembly had no official economic policy. Dr Wilson contrasted each party’s manifesto on the subject of community relations: there was huge disparity on the amount of importance each party placed on the issue. His talk reiterated the problems that a legacy of conflict creates for the economy, by discussing ‘peace walls’ and the link sectarian division has with exclusion from the labour market. In concluding, he invited the CRC to sponsor a debate on the relevance of ‘unionism’ and ‘nationalism’ to a post-Agreement, developed Northern Ireland.
A panel of politicians were next to participate in debate: Cllr Conor Maskey (Sinn Fein), Chris Lyttle MLA (Alliance), Robin Newton MLA (DUP), Connall McDevitt MLA (SDLP) and John McCallister MLA (UUP). They responded to the results of Qwizdom and admitted to previous failings. All the politicians were committed to the idea of providing positive leadership going forward. The politicians also spoke candidly about the needs of individual communities and were aware of the difficult work ahead.
Those attending the conference then heard a recorded interview with Nigel Roberts (World Bank). He related Northern Ireland’s experience to that of other countries that have experienced conflict, and stressed what a long process recovery can be. Mr Roberts reiterated that politics is not enough to mend a society and that a strong community base is essential. He stressed that a lousy economic situation makes it easy for young people to be recruited for political violence, criminal violence or both. Audience members learned that it can take up to 20 years for an economy to recover from conflict and that it takes longest for investors to come back.
Junior Minister Jonathan Bell closed the conference by remarking that there was now ‘hard graft’ that needed to take place. He stressed that results will only be achieved if people work ‘hand in hand’. The issue of paying attention to those at grassroots level was again stressed by Minister Bell.
The Community Relations Award was picked up by Rab McCallum and Michael Acheson who were described as an inspiration, often putting themselves at personal risk for the benefit of their communities.
Duncan Morrow finished the day remarking that ‘we need a new normal’ and urging those attending to think about what Northern Ireland wants and needs for future development and prosperity: ‘A superficial policy is doomed to fail. This is about decisions.’