Stormont needs to end stop-start government to allow economy to thrive – Stephen Lynch

Stop-start government has disrupted investment and distracted from tackling major long-term issues

First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly meeting Joe Biden and Joseph Kennedy in the China Room of the White House
First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly with US President Joe Biden and special economic envoy Joe Kennedy in the China Room of the White House (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Stormont’s new leadership team has been telling investors in the United States that Northern Ireland is open for business again.

Hundreds of American businesses like Microsoft, Citi and Allstate now employ over 30,000 people and have invested $2 billion in the region in the past decade.

Speaking in Washington DC during the St Patrick’s Day celebrations, Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly’s aim was to attract investment to ensure NI thrives.

One aspect they highlighted is the unique economic opportunity that ‘dual market’ access presents, especially for companies manufacturing in and exporting to GB and the EU. No other part of the UK, and no EU member state, benefits from this.

Recent suspensions at Stormont have destabilised politics. This has disrupted investment and distracted from tackling major long-term issues.

Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly
First Minister Michelle O’Neill with Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (Niall Carson/PA)

The new Executive must deal with pressing areas like public sector pay, the cost of childcare, and policing.

But ministers must also prioritise solving long-term economic problems. Northern Ireland has the UK’s poorest productivity and highest economic inactivity. Its public sector is significantly larger than the UK average. It also has low levels of innovation, entrepreneurship and adoption of new technologies.

These systemic challenges will hold back NI’s people until they’re solved, so the Executive’s objective should be to unlock previously unattainable investment. This will flow once lasting political stability, more long-term certainty, and an enhanced economy are achieved.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris meeting First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, and members of the newly-formed Stormont Executive at Stormont Castle, following the restoration of the powersharing executive
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris meet members of the newly-formed Stormont Executive at Stormont Castle (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire)

It is a tough task. But history tells us we are up to it.

Recent Irish News polling shows overwhelming popularity for removing the single-party veto. This well-intentioned mechanism has enabled Stormont to be suspended for five of the past seven years. All parties should reach a consensus about removing this barrier to growth and stability.

This would signal a clear, firm commitment to a future of mutual trust, respect and collaboration under power-sharing.

Two examples of the positive role a restored Executive can play are the long-awaited upgrade of the A5 and Casement Park.

Michelle O’Neill said she is determined to see Casement Park redeveloped
Redevelopment of Casement Park would allow Euro 2028 matches to be played in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

One of the largest sporting events in the world, Euro 2028, will be coming to west Belfast once planning disputes are resolved. For the first time in its short history, Northern Ireland can host matches in a major international tournament.

This would not only be the chance for football fans worldwide to see how good Co Tyrone’s Conor Bradley becomes in four years, important though that is. The tourism and hospitality sectors would also benefit from the new jobs created and a share of the £2.6 billion of socio-economic benefits for the UK and Ireland from the Euros. But first, the redevelopment’s value for money needs to be safeguarded for the taxpayer.

Many people, including many of my family in Tyrone, work in the traditional sectors of agriculture, construction and manufacturing.

Before leaving for London in the 1980s, my parents were part of this same too-large group in NI who left school without qualifications (around 1 in 8 working-age adults, nearly twice the UK rate).

But the new Northern Ireland economy boasts many advantages, like closely connected industry, regulators and academia; a strong pipeline of an educated, talented workforce equipped with relevant skills in the global economy; and a vibrant education sector boasting world-class universities, colleges, and schools.

It’s now well-placed to also succeed in emerging sectors like advanced manufacturing, life and health sciences, clean energy, and tech.

ICC Belfast, which has just hosted the UK’s flagship cyber security event, CyberUK 2023
ICC Belfast hosted the UK's flagship cyber security event, CyberUK, last year

A leading region for software development and fintech inward investment projects. The premier international investment location for US cyber security firms. Ten per cent of the global FX market flows through Belfast daily.

This is a moment to work together with the UK Government to unleash the potential of these industries. Photonics, smart manufacturing and nanotechnology in Derry-Londonderry. Designing and building 100% electric, zero-emission passenger ferries in Belfast. A nationwide high-power electric vehicle charging network for the first time.

The UK Government is also a willing partner in many other areas of economic enhancement.

Devolution of corporation tax, and a £150 million Enhanced Investment Zone allowing special tax incentives and targeted growth-boosting interventions. A strategy for bringing people back into the workforce, including support and pathways to employment for people with a disability.

The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998
Northern Ireland’s GDP has doubled since the Good Friday Agreement

Northern Ireland’s GDP has doubled since the Good Friday Agreement, and there are even more opportunities to build on the ‘peace dividend.’ These are the prizes of an enhanced economy. The rewards of a more stable, predictable, and collaborative environment.

The differences that once divided Northern Ireland in the past need not define it in the future.

Both traditions’ diaspora worldwide have been known for their entrepreneurial, pioneering spirit, determination, and grit.

The influence of the Ulster Scots and the Irish on America alone – on its culture, religion, politics, and founding values – has been profound. US presidents, astronauts, and founding fathers can trace this heritage.

Looking ahead, this impact can still be greater. All parties can work towards realising the potential of the brighter future that the people of Northern Ireland deserve.

:: Stephen Lynch is a former Conservative Party press adviser, and writes in a personal capacity