Our greatest natural resource

Stephen Baker challenges the dominant discourse of Northern Ireland’s governing politicians and commentators, who appear almost uniformly set on ‘rebalancing’ the local economy by channelling public resources towards private corporations, with scant regard for the broader common good. What if, instead, we began to see the government’s job as facilitating and unleashing the creative potential of the citizens of this ‘wee country’ – our greatest natural resource?

What does our economic future hold?

The Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI) scandal that has engulfed Northern Ireland’s politics is a sign that we should be thinking about the region beyond its notoriety for sectarian violence or even as an exemplar of a post-conflict society. These days Northern Ireland is largely just one of many economically and politically peripheral regions in the world, where policy makers and business people concern themselves primarily with the banal administration of capitalism. I say “banal” because incompetence, corruption and systemic failure are no strangers to capitalism – the crash of 2008 demonstrated that, spectacularly.

Yet the system’s proponents might prefer to focus on its apparent reputation for innovation and wealth generation. Even here, the claims made on capitalism’s behalf need qualifying, since it is often the state and public funding that enables creative genius when the private money proves risk averse. As Mariana Mazzucato argues, corporations have been adept at capitalising on the work of government funded designs. The smart phone that you are perhaps reading this on is an example of that.

Neither has the private sector been slow to tap into rich veins of public money. Even if we ignore the bail-outs to banks considered ‘too big to fail’, the transfer of public wealth into private hands was already well established with the privatisation of public utilities, the outsourcing of public services, as well as the PFI schemes. In Northern Ireland, the Stormont executive has lavished millions of pounds of public money on corporations and businesses via Invest NI in an effort to stimulate economic rejuvenation, attract inward investment and project the region onto the global stage. For instance, an investigation by The Detail revealed that between 2011 and 2014, the agency gave £64 million pounds to Northern Ireland Screen, which promotes the region as a film location, often attracting media corporations to Northern Ireland with financial incentives worth millions.

The economic impact of this expenditure is unclear, although sometimes fantastic claims are made for it. However, there is definitely a question mark over its effectiveness as a means of job creation. Over the past two years Northern Ireland has haemorrhaged manufacturing jobs. There are huge job losses in the public sector. While recently both Northern Ireland’s two universities have cut hundreds of jobs and student places, despite being key beneficiaries of Invest NI largesse – £42 million between 2011 and 2014, on top of £180 million from the Department of Employment and Learning in 2014/15.

As Northern Ireland enters the new year the prognostication for future employment prospects looks gloomy. Despite this, local commentators berate the region for its ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘bloated’ public sector. In the wake of the crash in 2008, the expectation of a ‘peace dividend’ was replaced by determined talk about the need to ‘rebalance the economy’; that is, end Northern Ireland’s long standing dependency on a subvention from the British treasury. The debate has been revisited in light of the RHI scandal, which the Conservative Owen Polley argues is indicative of a broader “cavalier” attitude to tax-payers’ money and tendency to see welfare as an economic stimulant. Meanwhile Newton Emerson has called for Northern Ireland to be more ‘self-reliant’.

But how exactly are 1.8 million people inhabiting 14,130 km² of land, with few discernible natural resources and a recent history of civil violence, supposed to achieve ‘self-reliance’? How should a six county entity ‘position’ itself in the context of EU turmoil, a disintegrating UK and a version of globalisation that favours metropolitan centres?

I’m presuming that there is nothing inherently wrong with the people in Northern Ireland that would render them useless or predispose them to ‘welfare dependency.’ After all, their grandparents en masse, produced linen and built great ships, and some gave their lives for King and country. But the region is now stripped of its heavy industries. The empire it served has gone. And the region’s new found consociational status and incorporation into the global free market has coincided with world wide economic turmoil and the rise of nativist nationalism in the US and across Europe.

So this article is a plea for understanding. But most of all for some fresh thinking on the future prospects of this region. What are its people going to do? What will they make? What is Northern Ireland going to sell? What service will it provide, and to whom? These are harder questions than the ones typically posed by a sometimes impetuous and condescending commentariat, for whom Northern Ireland’s maladies can be explained with reference to pathological sectarianism, self-sabotaging impulses and a proclivity to economic dependency.

As Maurice Macartney proposes elsewhere on The Combination, we must begin “to grapple with the logic of the system dynamics” that have produced the world we live in and our small corner of it. Such a systemic understanding of Northern Ireland’s place in the world is important because there may be no obvious answers to the questions posed above – what will this ‘wee country’ do, make, sell and service? Certainly there are no answers currently to those questions that don’t look like a sure-fire route to the immiseration and alienation of many people who live here.

The conclusion that Northern Ireland’s policy makers seem to have reached is that, in large part, the region’s economic development depends upon transferring its limited public financial resources into corporate hands. The RHI is just the latest example of this. But the proposed reduction in corporation tax works upon the same hopelessly optimistic trickle-down principle. In this respect, Northern Ireland’s political leadership resembles nothing so much as a lumpen-bourgeoisie – in other words, a weak political leadership, reduced to aiding and abetting the corporate exploitation of the region or nation they presume to govern, without any serious commitment to the common good. The controversy over the exploratory drill for oil at Woodburn Forest offers another depressing example of this sort of plunder.

When in 2016 Northern Ireland Water allowed InfraStrata to drill for oil just 380m uphill from a major reservoir and within a catchment area, local residents and environmental activist protested, fearful that the drill would pollute their water supply. Even if the protestors’ fears were unproven, the behaviour of local politicians was a master class in lumpen-government – as self-serving as it was parochial and myopic. In order to facilitate corporate interests, leading politicians showed a willingness to overrule locals, flout planning regulations, shirk democratic accountability and ignore broader environmental considerations about the contribution of fossil fuels to global warming – this in the wake of the Paris climate agreement signed in 2015 by 194 countries, including the UK and Ireland.

What all this demonstrated is how urgently Northern Ireland needs to think afresh, and start a new conversation about its future. For instance, what if we didn’t succumb to the interminable, terrible logic of the market that says everything has a price and nothing is sacred, not even clean drinking water? What if we didn’t assume that the region’s citizens were simply predisposed to social division and economic inactivity? What if elected representatives didn’t reduce their constituents to mere human resources to be delivered into corporate servitude? What if they saw those people as the region’s greatest natural resource, and that unleashing and facilitating the creative genius of those people was the work of government? What would that mean for education, health and welfare policy? What sort of public infrastructure would be required to enable the enterprising energies of the region’s people? Indeed, talking of energy, is it conceivable that on a small, island surrounded by waves and swept by wind, that we could be self-reliant in affordable, renewable energy – surely a huge boon for any economy?

I began this article combatively, taking aim at the pretensions of the private sector. I did it in reaction to the relentless attacks from right-wing politicians and commentators on the values of public service, cooperativeness and the commons. But I end with one final question: is it possible that we could bring the curtain down on this tedious, binary argument about the perceived virtues or demerits of public and private sectors? It is a dispute that supposes entrepreneurial dynamism belongs exclusively to the private sector, and bumbling bureaucracy is the preserve of public servants. Is this a useful way to conceive of an economy? After all, in Northern Ireland, there is a growing appreciation that binary thinking about questions of identity and national allegiance just leads to an intellectual and political logjam. Maybe the spheres of human work, life and experience are richer and more complex than our current reductive conversation about ‘the economy’ allows.

Stephen Baker
8 January 2017

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