Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Major economic structural weakness require All Ireland framework

6 October, 2004


Sinn Féin Fermanagh South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew speaking at the 9th annual economic conference organised by the CBI has today said that there are huge structural economic problems in the north that demand a new approach.

Ms Gildernew said:

"There are huge structural economic problems in the north centring around poor productivity; the loss of the manufacturing base; over-dependence on the public sector and service industries; a lack of focus on R&D, training and skills and poor infrastructure.

"These problems are exacerbated by the British Treasury's unwillingness to give special consideration to the north, by the lack of political stability, and by higher operating costs, including the cost of energy. The privatisation agenda currently being pursued by the British government means that all of us, individuals and businesses alike, are facing even higher costs in the near future.

"Sinn Féin believes that the future of the economy in the north of Ireland must be set in the context of an island wide strategy for development and regeneration. A small island with a population of just over 5 million people cannot successfully develop economic strategies on the basis of division within the island.

"The development of an all-Ireland economy and spatial integration is well advanced. The Good Friday Agreement changed the framework for governance on the island of Ireland. The All-Ireland Ministerial Council with delineated areas for all-Ireland development and co-operation is well underway. This work needs to be built on and extended into other areas. On the basis of economies of scale and sharing best practice this makes sense.

"Business is, in many ways, ahead of political developments as it has long been recognised that it is only by adopting a unified approach to the development of an all Ireland economic strategy will the whole country achieve its full potential.

"In the short to medium term, Sinn Féin believes that current problems must be addressed by an economic development package that should include:

· Public expenditure commitments by the British government

· Job creation strategies which would see the creation of higher value jobs

· Support for indigenous industry

· Investment in R&D, training and skills

"An immediate area of concern, both to business and to political parties, is the infrastructure deficit. Investors will go where the infrastructure is and will avoid the areas where it is absent. The practical out-working of this is that while manufacturing loss in the north is 6%, in Derry it is 34%. Estimates vary but the figure needed is calculated to be just under £7 billion.

"Years of neglect and under-funding by successive British administrations need to be remedied immediately. An immediate cash injection is needed that will begin to remedy the infrastructure deficit. The strategy should specifically target west of the Bann. We need a fast, efficient and safe transport network that feeds into an all Ireland network. We need necessary upgrades to the water and sewage system. We need the rollout of gas and greater urgency given to an all Ireland energy strategy." ENDS

Full Text

It is clear there are huge structural economic problems in the north centring around:

· Poor productivity

· The loss of the manufacturing base

· Over-dependence on the public sector and service industries

· A lack of focus on R&D, training and skills

· Poor infrastructure.

These problems have all been exacerbated by the British Treasury's unwillingness to give special consideration to the north, by the lack of political stability, and by higher operating costs, including the cost of energy. The privatisation agenda currently being pursued by the British government means that all of us, individuals and businesses alike, are facing even higher costs in the near future.

Sinn Féin believes that the future of the economy in the north of Ireland must be set in the context of an island wide strategy for development and regeneration. A small island with a population of just over 5 million people cannot successfully develop economic strategies on the basis of division within the island.

The devastating economic consequences of partition can be seen most clearly in the poor economic and social development of the border counties. This is a problem clearly recognised by the European Union, which has targeted funds at this area.

The development of an all-Ireland economy and spatial integration is well advanced. The Good Friday Agreement changed the framework for governance on the island of Ireland. The All-Ireland Ministerial Council with delineated areas for all-Ireland development and co-operation is well underway. This work needs to be built on and extended into other areas. On the basis of economies of scale and sharing best practice this makes sense.

Business is, in many ways, ahead of political developments as it has long been recognised that it is only by adopting a unified approach to the development of an all Ireland economic strategy will the whole country achieve its full potential.

In the short to medium term, Sinn Féin believes that current problems must be addressed by an economic development package that should include:

· Public expenditure commitments by the British government

· Job creation strategies which would see the creation of higher value jobs

· Support for indigenous industry

· Investment in R&D, training and skills

An immediate area of concern, both to business and to political parties, is the infrastructure deficit. Investors will go where the infrastructure is and will avoid the areas where it is absent. The practical out-working of this is that while manufacturing loss in the north is 6%, in Derry it is 34%. Estimates vary but the figure needed is calculated to be just under £7 billion. Years of neglect and under-funding by successive British administrations need to be remedied immediately. An immediate cash injection is needed that will begin to remedy the infrastructure deficit.

The strategy should specifically target west of the Bann. We need a fast, efficient and safe transport network that feeds into an all Ireland network. We need necessary upgrades to the water and sewage system. We need the rollout of gas and greater urgency given to an all Ireland energy strategy.

In conjunction with this we need a strategy for social inclusion, one that will tackle inequality, poverty and unemployment. New Deal type job creation schemes are not the solution. We need investment in education especially higher and further education and quality training. The infrastructural build itself would create jobs. Contract compliance and the use of local labour clauses (e.g. percentage of labour must be local, percentage must be taken from the Long Term Unemployed) must be a central element.

In essence this is the peace dividend that we should have had and which has been lacking from the political process. The communities and people who suffered most during the conflict still suffer the most serious deprivation, disadvantage and unemployment. It is absolutely essential that they benefit from the peace. Economics as conflict resolution needs to seriously tackle poverty and inequality and lift up those communities that have suffered most from the conflict.

Ireland, north and south, is experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity. In the north, latest figures from the labour market show that more people than ever are recorded as being employed. Unemployment has fallen to just over 5%. However, research has shown that not everyone is sharing in that prosperity. While many live in prosperity, there are a significant number of people living in poverty and the inequality gap is increasing. There is a huge swath of people who have yet to reap any kind of peace dividend, or share in the increased wealth.

We also know that poverty is a discriminator, it affects some groups in society more than others. For example, people with a disability are nearly twice as likely to be in poverty as those without a disability. Women are more likely to be poor than men. The level of poverty is 1.4 times higher in households where the household respondent is Catholic than where the household respondent is Protestant. Crucially, over a third of children are living in poverty.

Fair employment figures show that Catholic under-representation in employment continues. The data shows that there are still areas where Catholics, particularly males, are under represented, notably, in the security-related sector, district councils, and the private sector in general. There is evidence of Protestant under representation in the health and education segments of the public sector. In addition to differentials in employment, there is a continued gap in employment and economic activity rates between Catholics and Protestants. The 2001 Census showed that 73 per cent of Catholics were economically active as compared to 79 per cent of Protestants - and 44 per cent of Catholics were employed against 50 per cent of Protestants.

Unemployment rates are higher for those with no qualifications for all groups, but substantially higher for Catholics than Protestants. There is also a clear geographical element in relation to inequality, with the census showing that areas West of the Bann consistently score highly in relation to levels of unemployment and disadvantage.

What can be done to address this issue? Clearly, what is needed is an economy that serves the needs of all the people. Sinn Féin have a number of concerns.

We are not convinced that the use of Public Private Partnership (PPP) is always the most efficient, cost effective method and we have concerns that a privatisation agenda is being pushed through without any real thought being given to alternative methods. Areas of particular concern are those situations in which the contract will involve the transfer of employees to the private sector. It is imperative that all PPP projects be subject to rigorous equality impact assessment in order to determine whether the proposals are going to create further inequalities. This could be in terms of less favourable working conditions for employees, or less favourable service provision.

It is clear that one of the positive initiatives that has been brought forward over recent years has been the procurement review. It is clear that the pilot schemes introduced to encourage employers to recruit from the unemployed should be expanded further. Greater use of public procurement generally to further the promotion of equality should be developed as a matter of urgency.

There is a need for a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy that would see the actual targeting of resources to those most in need. Section 75 in particular offers the opportunity for public sector policy-making to actively work towards the promotion of greater equality. It is clear that there is much work to be done in relation to providing a comprehensive training and employment strategy that ensures that the least qualified members of society can be brought into the labour market. Clearly, the business community has a vested interest in ensuring that those entering the labour market have the necessary skills for the 21st Century. The economy in the north is also experiencing, for the first time, large numbers of

migrant workers. Language barriers are a serious problem for many of these

workers. Such workers are vulnerable, and open to exploitation, as a number

of studies have recently shown.

It is also clear that Single Equality Bill, and the Bill of Rights are crucial to the building of a society, and an economy that offers opportunity for all. Clearly, business will be concerned about 'red tape', and the need to remain competitive. It is worth noting however the concerns that were prevalent among business in the late 1980s regarding the introduction of compulsory workforce monitoring - since then the practice has become widely accepted as part of doing business in the north of Ireland. The Single Equality Bill, and the Bill of Rights are necessary tools for building a society in which there is genuine opportunity for all, and where the rights of all members of society are respected. Given our experience of conflict and discrimination this is a critical imperative for our society. If the future is not to mirror the past, then an economy must be developed which serves all the community, regardless of where they live, or their community background. The business community should look upon the Bill of Rights and the Single Equality Bill as tools for consolidating and furthering the peace and prosperity that has begun to develop.

As a politician it is immensely frustrating that we are not in a position to make these decisions in the Assembly. It is imperative that the institutions are up and running as a matter of urgency. This must be done in the context of preserving the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement. No dilution will be acceptable. The DUP are working with Sinn Féin at all levels, they make decisions with us in councils throughout the north and they worked with us in the Assembly committees. They need to sit down with us and speak face to face and work at resolving the many problems we have. A comprehensive and equality based economic strategy can only be developed as a result of open discussion and working together by all those involved. This requires input from the private sector, political parties, trade unions, community organisations, representatives of marginalised and excluded communities, all of whom collectively have a responsibility and an investment in developing a brighter and more prosperous future. ENDS

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