Democratic politics is all about choices.  The choices the politicians make will determine the choices the voters make and that will determine what lives and what dies.

After years of apparent convergence, British politics has entered a compelling phase of binary choices that should remind voters everywhere – including here in Ireland – that democracy really matters.

First, there was the referendum on Scottish Independence.  For many European nations the fact than this secessionist question was even put to a vote was shocking enough.  The threat of independence winning the day caused as much panic in Madrid as London.

In the end, the union held.  But all sides deserve huge credit for the manner in which they debated the issue and engaged in a remarkable campaign.

We know – from his unfortunate aside to the Mayor of New York – that the threat of break up had caused the British Prime Minister some considerable worry and that his relief on informing  the monarch of the result was such that David Cameron imagined his Queen purring down the line.

He knew that his own political mortality was bound up in the survival of the United Kingdom.  The pre-referendum polls had placed a noose around his neck, but the final result had spared him from the gallows.

With Scotland settled, for now, it was time for David Cameron to play Conservative Leader rather than UK Prime Minister.  He announced a plan to curtail Scottish votes at Westminster with English votes for English laws.

If implemented, the change would make it much more difficult for Labour to achieve a majority government.  If Labour reject the plan, the Tories can make it an electoral issue in England – forcing Labour to tell English voters why Scottish MPs should have the right to rule them when English MPs have little role in Scottish affairs.  Difficult choices for Labour.  Clear choices for voters.

Then Tory voters were presented with some unexpected choices as one, then two, conservative MPs announced their defection to the UK Independence Party, resigning their seats and forcing by-elections.

Nigel Farage, UKIP Leader, could perhaps be described as David Cameron’s mortal enemy.  The man who could rob the Conservatives of any chance of a general election victory next year.

But enemies can be useful and it appears UKIP’s assault has prompted the Tories to rediscover their political mojo.

At their party conference this week, Mr Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne unveiled a pre-election package that redistributes wealth – from the poor to the rich.  It’s a kind of inverse Robin Hood tactic – take from those on state benefits and give back to those on the highest rate of income tax.

It’s a risky strategy, but it seems like the most coherent plan to win an election the Tories have offered in a long time.  All will depend on the what the voters decide come election day.  This is real politics: it can be brutal and nasty but their are clear choices and consequences.

Step across the Irish sea to Stormont and you enter a parallel universe where the laws of real politics do not apply.

Sinn Féin – the second largest party of government – is refusing to implement cuts in welfare mandated by Westminster.  As a result the Executive is facing financial penalties from the UK Treasury which will either lead to cuts elsewhere or, more likely, the collapse of the Executive itself at which point the welfare cuts will be imposed.

Sinn Féin say that they won’t implement the cuts as people in Northern Ireland did not choose this Tory policy.  But even if they fight an Assembly election opposing the cuts, voters will have little choice in the matter –  unless all the other parties join Sinn Féin in proposing a separate welfare system in Northern Ireland.

Because of the system of government – which guarantees parties a place in government based on their electoral strength and which gives unionist and nationalist voting blocks a mutual veto – elections in Northern Ireland don’t offer voters much choice.

It looks like a democratic system – people vote freely and politicians are duly elected – but what an SDLP leader once called the “ugly architecture’’ of the Good Friday Agreement obliterates any chance of meaningful change.

It’s a system that doesn’t offer choice to voters and seems incapable of making choices itself. This is not a minor issue but the most fundamental flaw at the heart of the political settlement.

Imagine how things in the South might have played out had voters not been able to express their righteous wrath with Fianna Fail in the aftermath of the financial crisis and send them packing from government.  Imagine how difficult Ireland’s economic recovery might have been had a new government not been empowered by a decisive popular vote.

The argument against normal rules applying in Northern Ireland is simply that normal rules won’t work.  Well, the abnormal ones don’t seem to work either.

As the parties consider a new round of all-party talks, the governments need to consider the option of radical reform.  Rights can easily be protected without the need for all-party government. Real democracy requires real choices and consequences.

But there is little to no chance of that happening.  If the talks get underway – and that’s far from certain – their best chance of success is a patch-up job on the current zombie structures.  It will remain an undead political process.

First published in Sunday Business Post, 5th October 2014

myportstewartgarden

Here are some belated photos of Galway

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There’s an unnatural order about the big two parties in Northern Ireland. Their discipline is the stuff of cults. Dissent is not tolerated. So when a fight breaks out, the rarity value draws a large crowd of spectators.

The DUP has been entertaining the masses this week with a mixture of regicidal plotting, name-calling, blood-letting and public displays of affection.

The plotting has been ongoing for months with talk of Peter Robinson facing an early exit and speculation from informed sources that the leader would not be around to fight the next election.

There were rumblings from what could be called the Paisleyites, still aggrieved at the manner of the Big Man’s removal from leadership. In an article for his local newspaper after his father’s death, Ian Paisley Jnr described critics of his father as “pygmies in his shadow”. The dig at Robinson could not be hidden.

Meanwhile, there were signs of errant ministers not caring to follow the collective line.

DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots sparked a crisis when he refused to implement cuts, saying the Executive would need to find someone else to take the pain. His party colleague, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton was unimpressed and hit out at “poor budget management” in health.

Back from his holidays, Peter Robinson wasted little time taking action. First, he announced that the entire edifice at Stormont was built on shaky foundations and demanded all-party talks. This had the effect of halting internal dissent in its tracks – who wants to oust a leader when the future looks so uncertain?

Having set the wider context to a suitably high anxiety level – with Sinn Fein playing along beautifully – he moved to eliminate the rudderless dissent in DUP ranks.

Poots was sacked from his ministerial position. Other non-members of the Robinson fan club lost positions on committees, making room for loyal appointees. The Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland also lost his job, but despite damning headlines over his handling of Housing Executive business, his loyalty had never really been in doubt.

The promotions, and therefore sackings, were each announced on Twitter with photographs of the smiling newcomers accepting their responsible new positions. It was essentially a parade of executions with the chief executioner, Peter Robinson, taking full credit for the ruthless action.

This public humiliation is what must have prompted the ousted Poots to take to the airwaves and nonchalantly let slip that it was “public knowledge” that his party leader would step down before the planned 2016 Assembly elections. A statement denying this public knowledge was issued from Robinson’s office within minutes of the broadcast.

He followed this with an interview in which he talked about his critics as people who possessed the “strategic vision of a lemming”, warning that he would deal with those who did not back his leadership.

Then another Twitter parade followed. This time it was public professions of loyalty to the leader. A stream of tweets from MPs and MLAs all declaring their unyielding support for Peter Robinson. Even those who had never been knowingly near a tweet in their lives had their sentiments neatly parcelled into 140 characters by head office and dispatched into the world wide web of wonder.

To add insult to injury, the ousted health minister was forced to recant, declaring on Twitter that “Northern Ireland needs strong leadership, not internal strife in its largest party. DUP leader has clear mandate.” Sometimes, even in a tweet, it’s possible to see gritted teeth.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin is playing its own little games of distraction – calling for border polls etc – and doing a much better job of hiding deep internal dissent. Those who question their leader’s strategic vision never quite make it to a radio studio to expand on their thoughts. Believers say this is because such people don’t exist, but sceptics know otherwise.

In August Sinn Féin settled an employment case with the party’s former northern political director, and former hunger striker, Leo Green. This most senior figure at Stormont – effectively the party’s key man for all the policy deals with the DUP that must happen to make Stormont work – felt so aggrieved at his treatment by the party that he was going to court.

He never got there because the case was settled. And this is what a Sinn Féin spokesperson said: “The issues between Leo Green and Sinn Féin have been resolved amicably, on terms which are confidential to both parties. This matter is now concluded.”

In other words: “We’re not saying what happened, what’s been agreed and we’re not going to talk about it ever again.”

The widespread belief is that Leo Green did a deal on welfare reform that would have avoided the massive fines now being imposed by Westminster on Stormont and which could shortly lead to the collapse of the institutions. It was a good deal by Stormont’s horse-trading standards.

But it was not a deal that pleased President Gerry Adams who didn’t want any issue that impacted on southern elections and is willing to sacrifice Stormont as a result.

So, where does it leave the north’s fragile institutions? A new round of all-party talks seems inevitable. Instability currently suits both sides for different reasons. If you’ve ever wondered what a fight between pygmies and lemmings might look like – now you know.

 

Article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post, 25th Sep 2014

Ulster Unionism's founding hero Sir Edward Carson guides the way to Stormont

Ulster Unionism’s founding hero Sir Edward Carson guides the way to Stormont

I received this wonderful picture of Stormont in a Tweet this evening from Stephen Wallace.  Check out his blog http://www.hibernialandscapes.com/blogposts/2014/9/17/the-parliament-buildings

It looks like the sun is setting over the Northern Ireland Parliament which, given the current political difficulties, seems rather apt.  However look closer and you realize that this is a sunrise.  A new dawn for Stormont.

The Scottish referendum and subsequent constitutional debate within the UK may have provided just that – a fresh chance for Stormont to get its house in order.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers is reportedly poised to hold fresh all-party talks with Irish and American involvement to get things moving again.

http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/dday-for-stormont-as-theresa-villiers-plans-crunch-talks-to-end-deadlock-30606917.html

There is much to sort.  But the fundamental change in the UK national debate we’ve seen since last Thursday gives me hope that a better deal for devolution in Northern Ireland can be forged.  Forget Sinn Fein’s border poll and the DUP’s Executive reshuffle.  Forget welfare reform.  Forget Ardoyne and flags. These are all distractions.

There may be some collapse of the current arrangments, or engineered half-crisis, but at some point the parties will return to something very similar to what’s in place today.  Why?  Because there is no alternative.  Stormont is the only show in town.

This has been brought home to the DUP with brutal clarity following the Scottish vote.  England has risen up and demanded parity of esteem.  That means the votes of Northern Ireland’s MPs are worth nothing to an incoming Westminster government.  It’s a key shift which I wrote about in this week’s Sunday Business Post (below).  It strengthens Peter Robinson’s hand should he wish to deal – a rival power base at Westminster no longer exists.  Now it’s over to Sinn Fein to see if they’re ready to negotiate.

 

Scotland says No!  That has a nice ring to it for unionists in Northern Ireland.  But what does it mean?

This is the result they wanted.  It’s a win for the union by a fairly decent margin.  But it was secured with the promise of extra powers for Holyrood that have huge implications for Stormont and may change the very nature of unionism itself.

First Minister Peter Robinson wasted no time on Friday before placing a call to his Welsh counterpart Carwyn Jones.  There was a time, particularly under the leadership of the late Ian Paisley, that Alex Salmond would have been the friendly ally.  But in the aftermath of the independence debate with a scramble for devolved powers across the UK now underway it seems Wales is the only strategic partner Northern Ireland can find.

The big idea for transforming Northern Ireland’s economy – backed by all the parties since 2007 – has been devolving power over corporation tax.  This would allow the North to compete with the South for inward investment and grow indigenous companies by incentivising growth.

The practicalities aren’t easy – EU law prohibits tax incentives that would effectively be a double subsidy, so losses to the UK Treasury resulting from the tax change have to be repaid via deductions from Stormont’s budget – but the estimated £3-400 million annual price tag was thought worthwhile.

However plans to devolve the tax powers – heavily backed by former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson – were shelved whenever Alex Salmond began to warn he would make an issue of such unfair treatment for Scotland in the forthcoming referendum campaign.

Now everything’s up for negotiation, the main UK parties have made a solemn vow to devolve maximum power to Scotland and it’s not just the Northern Irish who are clamouring to be heard.

English MPs, of all parties, are in open revolt.  One of David Cameron’s own ministers, Claire Perry, warned of handing out “financial party bags” to Alex Salmond.  A big problem for the English is that it appears Scotland is being offered a continuation of current funding levels combined with extra tax powers.

Writing in her local paper, the Conservative Minister said: “If there is a proposal to allow devolution of local taxation, as well maintaining the current level of funding as a dollop from the UK Parliament, then that can hardly be equitable for those of us in all other areas in the non-Scottish Union.”

In his post-referendum speech on the steps of Downing Street, David Cameron re-iterated his pledge to stick to his pledge for Scotland but also ensure a fair deal for England too.

“I’ve long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We’ve heard the voice of Scotland, but now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws, the so-called West Lothian question, requires a decisive answer,” he said.

It may require a decisive answer, but it’s a question that’s been lurking unanswered in British politics for more than a generation.  Now David Cameron seems to want a quick fix – a blueprint is expected before the general election next year.

What it means is that the union, though safe, faces its most profound change in its history. This “family of nations” has maintained a settled system where the clear dominance of England is disguised by the vagueness of Great Britain.

The UK is proud of its unwritten constitution – only fussy Europeans like to have things like that nailed down in a document.  Much better, the theory has gone, to muddle through and literally make it up as you go along.

However the price of a Scottish “No” is that the vagueness will no longer do.  Not for Scotland.  Not for England.  As for Wales and Northern Ireland?  Well, they can take what’s given to them.

The union, as unionists have known it, is disappearing before their eyes.  Forget Scottish nationalism, it’s English nationalism and English priorities which will drive this debate as David Cameron tries desperately to secure his own leadership of the Conservative Party and steer the ship towards an election victory where the votes that matter are English votes.

In that context, unionists in Northern Ireland may not feel as isolated or betrayed as they might have done had Scotland voted Yes.  But they will begin to feel a lot less relevant and a lot less powerful.

One of the calculations Peter Robinson will have been making in recent times is the potential for his MPs to hold the balance of power at Westminster. We know David Cameron entertained them to tea at Downing Street.

But in an English parliament for English people their Ulster votes will be useless. They’ve gone from being potential power-brokers of a United Kingdom government to political non-entities overnight.  David Cameron no longer needs to sup tea with Peter Robinson, it’s Nigel Farage who might expect an invitation.

So, Northern Ireland’s unionist First Minister must do his utmost, along with allies where he finds them, to secure the best deal possible for Northern Ireland in the negotiations that now begin.  Carwyn Jones in Wales is definitely worth talking to.  But so too is Martin McGuinness in his office down the corridor at Stormont.

The challenge for unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland is to face the fact that they’re stuck with each other, nobody else wants or needs them, and to get down to work on behalf of the people that elected them

 

(this piece first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on Sunday 21st September 2014)

Good piece by Brian Lucey on bankers’ contribution to the Indyref debate. Remember, everyone has a perspective and an agenda.

Brian M. Lucey

The next week is going to be fascinating. I have no idea how Scotland will vote, for or against independence. I have no idea how I would vote were I there. Economically, there is probably a somewhat stronger argument for NO than YES, if you believe the politicians promises. But national self determination is not about economics alone. Ireland has seen a massive crash, from its overblown banking system. How bankers and other vested interests responded to that is very instructive for the scottish debate

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In 2007 Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness walked down the steps of the Great Hall at Stormont  in Northern Ireland and a new era in devolved government was born.  It was a remarkable day.  I was there, hosting live coverage from the BBC’s bunker studio in the basement.  It was a partnership I would never have imagined.  In my childhood, growing up in 1970s Belfast, such a scenario was beyond imagination.

That same year, 2007, Steve Jobs launched the iPhone.  Being a bit of a tech addict I made sure I got one as soon as I could.  That was a remarkable day too.  This was undoubtedly the most futuristic product I had ever experienced.  My childhood fantasies of jet-packs had met the diesel-fumed reality of bus lanes, but with the iPhone I was holding a genuine piece of the future.

2007 springs to mind again today as Stormont sits once again on the brink of collapse

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-29133267

and Apple unveils its latest gadets

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/gallery/2014/sep/09/apple-launches-iphone-6-watch-and-apple-pay-in-pictures

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: in the seven years it took Apple to revolutionize the way we live and in the process amass more cash at times than the US government; Stormont’s most memorable achievement has been a 5p tax on plastic bags.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a huge, global, private corporation with a small, regional, public administration.  It’s not comparing apples with oranges (excuse the pun), I suppose.

But what if Stormont was run like Apple?  What sort of government would we have?  Much the same, perhaps, serving the apparent consumer demand for sectarian stalemate?

Or maybe not.  Nobody ever told Steve Jobs to build them an iPod, or an iPhone.  How could they?  They didn’t exist.

As he said himself: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Henry Ford put it somewhat pithier a century ago: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Innovation that makes a real difference – in business or politics – requires the kind of leadership and insight that gives people what they want before they know how to ask.  Modern politics, across the globe, has largely forgotten that.

Northern Ireland politics tried such a strategy, along with Steve Jobs back in 2007 – don’t ask people what they want, design something new you think they’ll like and sell it to them. Apple has stuck with that strategy, but the Northern Ireland parties got scared and went running to their narrow-minded focus groups.  I’m not sure what question they asked because we haven’t  got faster horses, but at least we’ve got expensive plastic bags.

 

 

 

Gordon Brown is out fighting for the union. I joked the other day that with Brown and Darling taking the lead, why not also see if former PM Tony Blair could swing the vote. It’s a sad reflection on Labour’s legacy that these former Prime Ministers – Blair and Brown – are so lacking in credbility that they may even hinder the pro-union cause.

On Newsnight the SNP’s Stewart Hosie described Gordon Brown as a “backbench Labour MP making promises he can’t keep”. Ouch!

MP’s like Jim Murphy have been much more effective making the case for staying together. The member from East Renfrewshire is typical of a kind of articulate stalwart you’d expect only in Scotland.

Except, on reflection, he’s not typical. There are too few Jim Murphy’s left in Scotland. New Labour’s obsession with middle England has perhaps dealt a fatal blow to the union itself as Owen Jones outlines in the Guardian

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/07/scotland-decides-union-tories

Who knows how to spell integration?

Who knows how to spell integration?

Sixty years ago the US Supreme Court outlawed enforced racial segregation in American schools. Black children and students were free, under the highest law, to attend any public school on equal terms with whites. But state and district authorities fiercely resisted change and the American Civil Rights Movement was born.

Education was the battleground. In 1957 in Little Rock Arkansas the issue was brought to the world’s attention when nine black students enrolled at the all-white Central High School. They were barred from entering as the Governor deployed the state National Guard.

This forced President Eisenhower to intervene. He sent federal troops to escort the “Little Rock Nine” to class. It was landmark victory, but progress remained slow. Only in the aftermath of further civil strife and the trauma of President Kennedy’s assassination was the Civil Rights Act signed into law by Lyndon B Johnston in July 1964.

The 50th anniversary of that milestone is being marked in countless ways across the United States this year. Its legacy runs deep through politics and wider society.

Just last month the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops announced their own series of events to commemorate the anniversary.

Louisiana Bishop Shelton Fabre outlined the significance: “Recalling the Catholic Church’s past participation in these important historic moments serves to challenge the faithful to work constructively today to enhance the common good for people of all races and ethnicities.”

Cross the Atlantic to Ireland and the issue of civil rights and education remains hotly contested, but here religion, not race, is the fault line. Few politicians and even fewer bishops are likely to frame the debate in similar terms to the United States.

In the Republic, nine out of ten primary schools remain under the direct control of the Catholic Church. Catholic schools, by definition, have a responsibility to bring Catholic teaching into all aspects of the curriculum and school life.

It’s perfectly reasonable for Catholic schools to do this. But is it reasonable for the State to fund this type of education to the exclusion of all else? In 21st Century Ireland, most non-Catholics don’t have the option of sending their children to non-Catholic schools – yet their taxes are supporting this hegemony.

Does anyone genuinely believe that this religious dominance of such a key state provision made no contribution to the slow decline of the Protestant population in the Republic post independence?

The implications are both social and economic. Modern, thriving economies rely upon diversity in this inter-connected world. Does Ireland truly present itself as a welcoming place for talented non-Catholics seeking opportunities for them and their families?

Former Education Minister Ruairi Quinn recognised the problem and began the process of bringing greater pluralism and diversity of patronage to the primary sector. In many quarters his efforts were denounced as an atheist’s charter.

But not by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who sees the benefits to society, and even the Catholic Church, of relinquishing some control in the education sector. He joined forces with his Church of Ireland counterpart Michael Jackson to bring Catholic and Protestant teacher training together for the first time, under the auspices of Dublin City University.

In a joint statement they promised “an environment and setting which is pluralist and respectful of the academic enterprise as a whole” and a new experience for trainee teachers that “honours the formative contribution which understanding one’s own tradition within Christianity brings to education together with understanding the faith tradition of others who are different from us,”.

It’s a significant move. But travel 100 miles north to Belfast and attitudes are entirely different. Whatever happened to Catholics taking a “universal” approach?

In Belfast, Catholic teachers, like their pupils, are educated apart. Any suggestion that the Catholic training college should merge with its Protestant counterpart is strongly resisted.

And any mild admonishment of an education system which separates children at four or five on the basis of their religion is met with a ferocious counter attack.

Speaking in Belfast last year on his way to the G8 summit in Fermanagh, President Obama said the following to an audience including many schoolchildren: “If towns remain divided; if Protestants have their school buildings and Catholics have theirs; if we can’t see ourselves in one another; if fear, or resentment are allowed to harden – that encourages division. It discourages co-operation. Ultimately peace is not just about politics.”

This statement of the apparent obvious was presented by many as a vicious attack on Catholic education. When President Obama and David Cameron then visited an integrated primary school in Enniskillen, this was seen as a further insult.

Yet, swap the terms Catholic and Protestant for Black and White and you get a better insight into where Barack Obama is coming from. It’s time for change.

In County Armagh, one small primary school has taken an important first step. In an historic first, this rural Catholic school has voted to transform to integrated status and welcome Protestant children from the local community. The vote by parents was unanimously in favour and polling in the area has shown overwhelming community support.

At present the Catholic authorities want to close the school. Sinn Fein’s Education Minister John O’Dowd has a decision to make – go with the Catholic authorities, or give the parents, the children and their school a chance. Many others are watching. This could be the start of something big.

 

(This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on September 7th 2014)

Scotland And The EU

September 3, 2014 — Leave a comment

An independent Scotland will lose its EU membership if it keeps the pound says UK Treasury Minister Danny Alexander.

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/02/uk-scotland-independence-currency-idUKKBN0GX1ZZ20140902

His reasoning is that the UK negotiated a special Euro opt-out that doesn’t apply to new EU members, all of whom are required to join the single currency.

The Pound and EU membership have been the two big uncertainties of the independence debate with the “Yes” camp consistently under fire from both Westminster and Brussels.

Earlier this year, the former EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned that Scotland would find it “extremely difficult” to re-join the European club if it left the UK. His successor has maintained this line.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-26215963

But these are unchartered waters and nobody – even Treasury ministers or Commission presidents – can predict with certainty what will happen.

Barosso’s tone is dictated by other big member states who are fearful that Scottish independence will give momentum to other secessionist movements. However, there’s a flaw in his logic that Scotland automatically leaves the EU upon leaving the UK.

The independence referendum is a process provided under UK legislation. The UK is a member state. The UK Government could have decided that Scottish independence required a referendum across the whole nation, but it determined that Scotland alone could make the decision.

If – through this UK process – the UK itself ceases to exist as previously known, then surely any question over membership applies not just to Scotland, but to England, Wales and Northern Ireland? And if the EU gives England, Wales and Northern Ireland a free pass to remain in the club, why not Scotland?

As for the Pound issue – it is secondary to the argument above. So if the EU accepts that Scotland can remain – like the remnant UK – then surely it cannot force the Euro on Edinburgh if the same does not apply to London.

The bottom line is that none of these issues have been tackled before. There are no clear cut rules and all sides should be honest about that.

Unionists used to talk about the “dirty road to Dublin”. It was both political metaphor and motoring fact. The actual road between the two cities was a complete stinker, particularly on the southern side.

For those of us who grew up with lengthy and frustrating battles through every fume-filled bottleneck from Newry to Balbriggan, the easy sweep from the Lagan to the Liffey these days remains a pleasant surprise no matter how frequent the trip.

During the Troubles, the roads in Northern Ireland were one of the few things we northerners could boast about. When they weren’t blocked by bomb attacks or security checks our roads were remarkably good compared to the south.

I remember writing a piece for the Irish News in the 1990s which highlighted the investment the Dublin government was planning to put into roads in the Republic. The story included a quote from a leading business organisation warning that before long roads in the south would be better than those in the north.

The very suggestion provoked outrage and was a lively topic of discussion on the airwaves that day. Never, never, never…surely not?

This week the Wall Street Journal published a chart listing the “cheapest countries to fly 100 kilometres on average”. India was the cheapest. But Ireland made it into the top 20 – just below Germany but considerably cheaper than the UK.

The added cost in the UK is probably a result of air passenger tax which no longer exists in the Republic but adds £13 per economy passenger on short-haul routes from the UK and up to £97 on long-haul.

The Irish boss of British Airways, Willie Walsh, warned recently that the tax was damaging the Northern Ireland economy. He’s right. Why pay tax in Belfast when a short drive to Dublin can offer a cheaper alternative?

The damage to the Northern Ireland economy was recognised whenever Westminster rushed through legislation that devolved power over the tax to Stormont. It allowed the Executive to cut the long-haul rate in return for repaying the lost tax to the Treasury out of Stormont’s own budget.

That effectively allowed Stormont to subsidise Northern Ireland’s only long-haul route – a daily connection by United to Newark – at an annual cost of up to £5 million. But so far the extra incentive hasn’t been enough to persuade any new operators to set up, nor has it been enough to prevent United dropping its service during the quiet months.

Stormont doesn’t want to spend the extra to reduce the tax to zero, nor can it afford to apply similar concessions to short-haul flights. So Dublin will continue to win business at Belfast’s expense.

To quote Willie Walsh: “I speak to airline chief executives around the world and when I ask them about starting new routes to Northern Ireland, they are not interested because of the tax issue.”

Fewer direct air links means fewer tourists arriving and less business travel and trade. The only way the north can grow its tourist economy is by persuading those that land in Dublin to turn left rather than right when they reach the airport exit. But that’s not happening.

The south is enjoying a tourism boom while the north continues to lag behind. Selling Ireland abroad is the responsibility of Tourism Ireland for both north and south. The all-island arrangement predates the Good Friday Agreement. It makes sense, but it has never been an easy relationship.

The departing boss of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board believes he’s being short-changed. Alan Clarke told the Irish Times that the north funds around one third of the all-island budget but only gets around one tenth of the tourists. He has always argued for a more distinctive message for the British audience.

But perhaps his analysis misses some more fundamental problems that may explain the problem.
It may simply be the case that it costs a lot more to persuade a tourist to Northern Ireland than to the Republic: Titanic Belfast and the Giants Causeway are great draws, but street riots and sectarian strife are not.

The lack of direct connections into Belfast is a major problem because having arrived in the Republic, it’s simply easier to stay there. Changing currencies is a minor hassle nowadays, but it’s also a psychological barrier.

That lack of direct connection is not Tourism Ireland’s fault, but the Westminster government’s. Stormont can’t afford to offset the entire cost of air passenger duty, but in order to compete and grow the economy it should be scrapped. It’s not just a tax on tourism and trade, but on economic activity within the UK.

Effectively, Northern Ireland’s citizens are being punished for being separated from the rest of the UK by the Irish Sea. As Labour MP Kate Hoey suggested, the Treasury ministers and officials should try taking the ferry to Larne next time they’re travelling to see what its like if you can’t afford the tax.

Meanwhile, the Republic has taken other strategic measures to boost tourism – notably a healthy reduction in the VAT rate to 9%. Many in the industry credit that as the key factor in driving numbers up. As someone who has holidayed recently in the West and dined out in Dublin, I can happily vouch for the fact that competitiveness has returned. Northern Ireland is too expensive, because here the industry must compete with a 20% rate of VAT.

When you analyse the economic story, and tourism is representative of the wider tale, you see the Republic making strategic investments and tailoring its taxes to suit its medium and long-term economic objectives while Northern Ireland is unable to tackle fundamental problems because of a lack of power and an unwillingness to make some tough choices.

This week, Nancy Soderberg, a key player in President Clinton’s administration and former US ambassador to the UN, slammed the “abysmal lack of leadership” from the north’s politicians in recent years – obsessed with culture and the past, neglecting the economy and the future.
The “dirty road to Dublin” remains a potent political metaphor, but it’s a old myth and a dangerous one which leaves Northern Ireland in the slow lane.

Article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on Sunday 31st August 2014