Regional Economic Imbalance

Members' Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 12 February 2024.

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Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15, 12 February 2024

Last week was a period of profound and historic change in Northern Ireland, yet, for all the change that has been brought to the Assembly, the change that I will focus on is the change that is needed for our economy. I was glad to hear the First Minister note the importance of regional balance last week, because the truth is that the effect of the Government's economic investment strategy over the past two decades has been to let the areas that have done well do even better. That has resulted in profound imbalances in our economy and a postcode lottery for jobs and opportunity.

The difference in the level of employment and economic inactivity between the highest-performing regions and the lowest-performing regions is around 10%, and there is still a huge disparity in the levels of earnings and disposable income between people in different places. In places like north Belfast and west Belfast, the levels of poverty are the highest anywhere in Northern Ireland. Places like Fermanagh are starved of infrastructure development, and, yes, Derry and the north-west city region are still without a university of the size that was promised, without the investment that has been pledged and without the jobs that are so badly needed.

However, I did not get involved in politics because of how bad things are in Derry; I got involved because of how good things could be. Derry and the wider city region is the only metropolitan urban area of scale outside Belfast that is able to compete with cities across this island, but, more than that, to invest in Derry is to invest in the whole of the economy, since it is there that special intervention will have the most transformative impact.

The opportunity before us is huge. Making the most of that opportunity will not happen overnight, but neither will it happen by accident.

It requires deliberate and proactive policies and interventions. It requires affirmative action to address the decades of neglect. It requires positive discrimination to tilt the balance of the economy and ensure that everyone has a fair chance to succeed.

That positive discrimination must take the form of legislation. Therefore, I will propose a new law that will change the way in which this place works so that we finally prioritise regional balance in jobs, skills and investment. The legislation will create binding targets for Departments and provide accountability for our Government. It will finally reform Invest NI and expand higher education provision in the north-west.

As the mandate starts, let us resolve that it will not be the same as the last. We need to change the approach if we are to rebalance the economy. Warm words alone about regional balance just will not cut it.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Even commitments in the Programme for Government will not be enough.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Resume your seat, please.

Photo of Sinéad McLaughlin Sinéad McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

We have heard and seen them all before. Let us get this done.