I am reminded of this scene from Father Ted: “Another mass? That’s our best idea?”
It seems the discussion is similar around the NI Executive table. “Another investment conference? That’s our best idea?”
The truth is NI can have as many investment conferences as it likes, it will scarcely create a single job until Northern Ireland develops a truly open economy. And for an open economy, you need an open society.
Think of all the seriously successful and prosperous cities and regions (excluding those which have got there by dint purely of a lucky oil strike or some such), and you will think of truly open, multi-cultural, diverse and socially liberal cities – Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, New York, Vancouver, Sydney and so on. These are cities which embrace change and innovation in business and thus lead the world in it – and inevitably they are cities which embrace social change and social innovation. In some ways, Dublin or Edinburgh could be placed on the above list. Could Belfast?
Belfast, and Northern Ireland as a whole, is a closed economy. Segregated into silos, the primacy of “who you know not what you know” when looking for jobs, tenders or contracts is taken for granted. If you’re looking for international investment where merit and innovation are essential, that is hopeless!
It is a closed economy primarily because it is a closed society. We saw another example this week, with an Assembly vote comfortably opposing same-sex marriage. Tell me, which of the above prosperous cities does not allow or plan to allow same-sex marriage? Not one.
Prosperous cities and regions – the type international investors will choose – are open and embracing of social change and thus trusted with economic innovation and ultimately wealth creation. Closed societies – ones which rely on “who you know” and even just outright corruption – remain backward and poor. This is a universal truth – but for a lucky oil strike or some such, there are no exceptions at all to it.
So frankly Arlene Foster can have all the international investment conferences she likes – until she votes for same-sex marriage and other socially progressive and open policies, she is merely fiddling in the wind.