There’s no denying it - we’re in a tight spot and it will take imagination and determination to get through it. We will all have parts to play in this extraordinary drama but, with the right policies and the right spirit, we should be able to minimise the damage.
Looking at the forces at play, there are positives and negatives. We have great businesses doing well at home and abroad, City Deals, excellent universities and colleges, record low unemployment, and talented young people moving through the education system. But we have the evolving Northern Ireland Protocol stuck in an impasse that is causing friction with almost everyone it touches; there is still no Executive at Stormont, and little sign of one being formed; and there is war in Europe. Inflation is high, recession is looming, industrial discontent is bubbling away, and external factors affecting the cost of living look grim. It is clear that economic transformation is underway, and it can be painful – whether it is moving from bad times to good…… or going the other way and seeing a damaging decline.
When the playwright, Alan Bleasdale, wrote Boys from the Blackstuff in the 1970’s and 80’s, it really struck a chord. One of the lead characters, Yosser Hughes, not only captured the mood of the time – in what became known as the aspirational Thatcher’s Britain – with his hopeless refrain of "gizza job" - but voiced what was described as a lament to the end of a male, working class culture. In that ‘requiem’ for the old working class community that was being destroyed, Yosser’s plaintive cry – “gizza job” – became the street-slang for what was described at the time by the British Film Institute as “a warm, humorous but ultimately tragic look at the way economics affect ordinary people”.
By contrast, another character of the time – Peckham’s favourite son, Derek ‘Delboy’ Trotter, showed the next stage of economic transformation. Aspiration and drive took hold against a backdrop of privatisations, home-owning council house sales, and the City’s famed ‘Big Bang’, which saw a sudden and massive deregulation of financial markets.
Perhaps the reason these two fictional series found such a place in the psyche of the time was because they were parts of the same continuum – the zeitgeist of the era. One which had the basic human spirit at its core - the need to be able to provide for self and family; the self-respect that comes with having purpose, reward, security, and the ability to plan and invest and prosper. Economics affecting ordinary people, writ large.
Whilst these forces are buffeting communities right across the globe here, in Northern Ireland, we have additional factors to consider. Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – the foundation of our modern, peaceful society. When peace takes hold, prosperity can follow – but it isn’t a given. It takes people to decide to create wealth and opportunity, and jobs; and it also takes that more mercurial quality of ‘confidence’.
There are few societal problems that will not be improved, reduced or eradicated by the creation of wealth and jobs. In Northern Ireland today, we have a confluence of factors – all capable of being harnessed to build a dynamic, robust economy that can spread prosperity and opportunity, to help us move from the difficult position in which we currently find ourselves; but how we emerge from it will determine whether we are diminished by it - or enhanced.
We must ensure the provision of jobs that are suitable for all – whether high-tech, high-skilled, or support and ancilliary – there must be opportunity for everyone. To do that, we need business owners to keep on innovating and employing; local politicians to resume work and give us competitive local taxes and first class infrastructure; and national and international politicians to expedite arrangements that will let us have stability and predictability in these deeply uncertain times.
We should then use our unique location and relationships with the Republic of Ireland, with the EU, and with the rest of the UK, combined with the talents of our workforce, to inspire the relocatation of the economic centre of gravity for a vast amount of global trade to Northern Ireland for the benefit of all.
That’s the prize and we should settle for nothing less.