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Devolution and Growth Across Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 3rd June 2015.

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Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South 4:30 pm, 3rd June 2015

The hon. Gentleman has missed the thrust of what I am trying to say. There is an economic problem in Northern Ireland. We had a peace process, and a political process that flowed from it. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that there was to be a peace dividend, which never quite arrived. We need to find ways and means of establishing that dividend. It is not enough to have welfare reforms without jobs for people to go to.

We must recognise the problem, and acknowledge that a problem exists. If we do not acknowledge that a problem exists, how can we tackle it? It is impossible to tackle a problem if we do not clearly understand its size and severity. We need a new consensus between the two sovereign Governments—the British and Irish Governments —all the parties in Northern Ireland, the business community and society at large on a meaningful programme for economic development. If that does not happen, we will end up with instability. We need everyone on board. In fact, in some respects we need a re-engineering of our whole economic outlook.

Our problem is compounded by the fact that only about 37% of the revenue produced in Northern Ireland is generated by what might be described as the private sector. Everything else is generated, in one way or another, by Government spending, and most people agree that that is not a sustainable position. The proportions are astounding. Almost the exact reverse of what is happening in Northern Ireland is happening in the Irish Republic, a few miles away. We are subsidised, and we have subsidy politics—which means that we have politics without much ambition, without much social development, and without much economics. We want a future, and our people want a future. They want a sustainable future for their children. That is why we in the SDLP are proposing a social transformation, perhaps on a par with the peace process—it could be described as a prosperity process—which will create a normal, sustainable economy.

This is not just about rebalancing the economy; it is about transforming the economy. Everyone pays lip service to the idea of transforming as well as rebalancing the economy. The Prime Minister himself paid a great deal of attention to it before the last election, but even he had to admit that it would take a generation to sort it out. Since then, little meaningful has happened except the cuts. A more balanced economy is something that cannot be wished into existence. It will not happen by accident, and it will not happen magically. We cannot make sense of cutting corporation tax and cutting higher education and training places at the same time. We cannot solve the problem by firing public sector workers. In fact, the problem is not in the public sector at all.