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Leadership includes ability to make unpopular decisions

Published 15/01/2013

Opinion CLAIRE AIKEN




THE American Adlai E Stevenson former governor of Illinois and ambassador to the UN, once said: "All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions."

Many leaders will have days when they will be challenged to make decisions that carry painful implications, for teams, departments, communities and individuals. Having the ability to stare the difficult decisions in the eye and make that call which is contrary to public opinion, or more pertinently contrary to the stance of their own supporters, is core to making a great leader.

In recent weeks this type of leader-ship has been all too lacking in Northern Ireland and has the potential to undo the progress that has been made.

It was one of the greatest global business leaders, Richard Branson, who penned the most simplistic of sayings: "Business opportunities are like buses. There's always another one coming."

A fortnight into the new year, 42 days of protest, £15 million of lost revenue and counting, it's hard for many retailers and traders in Belfast city centre to see where the next opportunity will come from - especially when they cannot see an end to this present impasse.

Businesses which depend upon the Christmas trade to sustain them were down by 40 per cent, with some now struggling to survive. Of course, this is all taking place against a back-drop of unprecedented trading challenges and changing consumer behaviour.

In light of all this negative press, it's hard to remember that there were many positives to take from 2012.

Record attendance at a European golf event at the Irish Open in Portrush and a hugely successful launch of the Titanic building to name but two, with positive images beamed around the globe of a reformed and welcoming place.

"A week's a long time in politics," said the old Labour warrior Harold Wilson. In that context, six months is a lifetime.

Contrast those positive images of Northern Ireland in 2012 with the last 42 days - raucously aggressive rioting, burning cars, petrol bombs, death threats, injured police and, as of a week ago, £7m of police resources. Is it any wonder that it has been reported that companies planning to invest here are starting to rethink?

As for the impact on tourism, only time will tell. It is this potential loss of employment and investment that impacts us all.

So how did it come to this? It's easy to bash our political representatives and to my mind it's something we, as a society, are all too quick to do. After all, there has been some courageous leadership over the past number of years.

However as hard as I might resist I have to join the dissenting voices as I've seen no leadership around this issue, only failure to deliver on clearly set-out political commitments. It doesn't matter what position you take on Belfast's recent and continuing plight, the bottom line is all we have seen is political jostling, entrenchment, allegation and counter-allegation.

However, I have not seen our political leaders properly challenged on failing on their commitments. Take a look at the political party manifestos for the 2011 assembly elections or more pertinently the Programme for Government announced by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in March, the economy is at the heart of them all.

So where is the commitment to growing a sustainable economy when a significant constitutional or cultural issue arises? This was a real challenge for the guardians of Northern Ireland plc to keep the show on the road at a critical time in the business calendar.

Positioning the economy as the number one priority must mean just that - no matter what adversarial circumstances arise. And of course it's simply not a get-out clause to say this was a local government decision, we all know where the influence and the power lies.

Whilst many have used it as an excuse there can be no doubt that disengagement and disconnect within loyalist working-class communities, coupled with unemployment and a sense of being left behind has resulted in some people feeling they have no stake and ultimately no pride in our city.

Former Secretary of State Peter Hain called it "toxic", something which our leaders have failed to address.

This is not the first time nor will it be the last that the economy suffers, jobs are lost and our reputation takes a battering on the global stage until the assembly stops procrastinating and grasps the shared future nettle and addresses our disparate communities.

Peter Robinson on the BBC at the weekend talked about not giving up on a "shared future", language that suggests that real endeavours have been made. The surface hasn't even been scratched. The biggest challenge of this whole process is yet to come.

Building a shared future also includes dealing with the past and while there will be no guarantees and some pain for many within society it is the only way to achieve mutual respect, sustainable communities and better economic opportunities for all.

Belfast is a shining example of the progress that has already been made and a beacon for greater days ahead. There's been significant public investment in areas including infra-structure, roads and motorways, amenities and schools, and this has been matched by the business community.

In 2013 there are some great opportunities ahead.

The World Police and Fire Games, Derry's City of Culture year, not forgetting the G8. We must make the most of these opportunities.

With that in mind, new year's resolutions for our political leaders: put your clearly laid-out commitment to the economy first, grasp the shared future nettle and ask yourself whether you are working towards a short-term win for your own community or a longer-term one that is to the benefit of all.

Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs firm Aiken PR.

■ NEGATIVE IMPACT: A hijacked vehicle burns at the normally busy Shaftesbury Square in Belfast last month as a protest against the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall turned violent