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23 June 2011

Northern Ireland: A prosperous nation in the making?

This month, Mike Nesbit, the Ulster Unionist Enterprise spokesman, called on consumers to make their voices heard over Corporation Tax in NI.  He also urged local business people not to allow their silence to kill off potential changes to the levy.   

This was in response to what he described as a "dangerously low" response rate to the HM Treasury's public consultation exercise on devolving Corporation Tax to the NI Assembly. Mr Nesbitt said he feared the Treasury would interpret this as a sign that there's no appetite for change. "It's hard to think of a more powerful argument against devolving the power than an indifferent business community," he said.  

Yet, confusion rather than indifference is likely to be a more significant factor in the poor response rate. The debate surrounding lowering the Corporation Tax is highly complex.  The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee state that it will enable NI to better compete with the Republic of Ireland, attract foreign investment and assist the indigenous private sector to expand, innovate and employ more staff. However some, including Lady Sylvia Hermon MP and the TUC, have spoken out against the proposals arguing that low corporation tax is not a panacea for NI's economic ills and that there will be massive additional costs to businesses. 

Whatever the outcome of this consultation it is clear that new sources of income generation are required to boost our economy - an economy that has an irrefutably underdeveloped private sector.  
One source of income is found in our tourism industry and while numbers visiting Northern Ireland last year fell, a historic achievement by one local lad in the US Open (had to get Rory's win in somehow!) offers a ray of hope that tourism, more specifically golf tourism, will become a major earner for the nation. Such a tiny country producing two US Open winners back-to-back has to spark some interest. 

Having said this, there is much more to creating a prosperous society than simply growing the economy. Prosperity is not a one dimensional concept but one with many facets and financial/economic prosperity, while important, is but one aspect. Prosperity also encompasses factors such as social capital, health and well-being.  

When only financial prosperity is sought - at the expense of building social capital, health and well-being - it becomes self limiting.  Workers can become disillusioned, burnt-out or even exploitative for the purposes of self-interest. The benefits of financial growth are then experienced only by the few and eventually fail to mitigate the negative effects of an increasingly driven and acquisitive society. Families suffer as the pressures of - often both - parents working long hours leave them unable to enjoy the financial security they have worked so hard to create. Sports, culture, voluntary and community sectors (among others) all suffer as people have less time to give to such things.  Even the very driving forces of the modern economy - innovation and productivity - suffer as demands for high outputs and targets stifle creative thinking, strategic planning, collaborative partnerships and workforce morale and health.   

Money is not bad but that the path to a prosperous society is not found in the pursuit of economic growth alone or even with it at the centre of a concentric approach.   
Sound economic policies around taxes and developing opportunities for growth in tourism are both vitally important for growing the economy. On the other hand that very same economy can be put under enormous strain by; a health sector over-burdened with work-related illnesses, family breakdown as a result of work pressures/long hours and its wide-ranging and far-reaching consequences (including on the uptake of benefits, educational achievement of children from broken homes, young people entering the criminal justice system etc), and diminished voluntary capacity to bridge the gap left by reduced state provision of services in the community especially with the most vulnerable. 

In essence it is like filling a bath without first putting in the plug!  

Where building social capital and well-being are prioritised alongside economic growth, threats to the economy are lessened and opportunities for innovation, collaboration and poverty alleviation are created. What is more, these ventures no longer have to occur separately. Indeed, they need to be addressed together; they are two sides of the same coin and if separated, can become seemingly rival goals that compete over scarce resources. 

A bold vision of prosperity in all its fullness needs to be cast and bold leadership that delivers on the ground needs to be realised. Our politicians are in the position to do both but without civic engagement will they be envisioned, supported and held accountable to the task ahead?  If, as Jeremiah calls us to, we seek a truly prosperous nation, then Church leaders and individual Christians in NI can, and should, take up the challenge to be the prophetic voice that does exactly that.