David Ford speech at Alliance Party Business Breakfast

18 months ago the Executive made the economy its ‘number one priority’. Since then, we have seen a banking crisis, a credit crunch and a business downturn. I have to admit, reluctantly, that this may not be entirely the Executive’s fault!

However, we in the Alliance Party have a clear and longstanding commitment to a sustainable Northern Ireland, and within that we include financial sustainability. It will not happen overnight, but we wish to replace a culture of dependency with a culture of wealth creation. We wish to move from a society which asks where it can get money, to a society which asks where it can earn it. We never thought it would be easy, and the last few months have made us even more keenly aware of that.

We often talk about division in Northern Ireland, with reference to what are generally referred to as ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’. However, there are many other divisions we need to overcome. One is the division between business and politics – an issue we took directly to the then Prime Minister in the run-up to the restoration of devolution, and an issue that my colleague Seán Neeson continues to take action on through the successful Assembly Business Trust. Business has an entirely legitimate interest in how this country is run, and politicians have an entirely legitimate interest in the fortunes of businesses – after all, they create the wealth on which our public services depend. In many cases (not least that of the City Airport), they provide services crucial to our economy, and to our society.

Good government is about more than fine words, more than glossy strategies – more, in fact, than just meeting! It is about underlying every new policy direction and every new piece of legislation with an absolute commitment to delivering a better climate for business. If we do not do this, we will always be dependent on the finances, and therefore the policies, of others.

The Alliance Party is committed to a better climate for businesses. To achieve this, we are basing our own policy stances on three core themes – three core themes which are just as relevant post-credit crunch as they were before it.

The first is tackling segregation and building a united community. Businesses simply cannot operate if they are denied access to the widest pool of talent and the best-funded public services. Leaving segregation in place, as the Executive is bound to do as its members are dependent on that segregation for their political base, therefore automatically hinders business. It is nonsense to talk of making the economy your ‘number one priority’ without also making ending social division and exclusion a ‘number one priority’.

The second is re-balancing the economy. This means far more than just shifting from public-sector focus to private-sector focus. It means re-balancing the workplace – for example, we have too few women in senior business positions, we have too few men in work at all. It means re-balancing work times, promoting more flexible work patterns but also enabling the development of Belfast as a genuinely 24-hour city, not one where shutters go down at 5pm. It also means enhancing the role of the voluntary sector, and a re-balance there towards delivery expertise and service delivery.

The third is also a re-balance, towards a more sustainable way of doing government. That means promotion of sustainable house-building, sustainable schools, sustainable leisure facilities. It means promotion of the green economy and means of creating wealth built not on short-term speculation, but on long-term good business. It also means developing a sustainable system of government that does not disappear into crisis every time one party does not agree with another.

The economic downturn makes all these themes more important still. Never has it been more apparent that we simply cannot afford to live in divided communities. Never has it been more apparent that we need to create our own wealth rather than rely on others’. Never has it been more apparent that we need to think in a sustainable, long-term way when it comes to public service provision. Politically, never has it been more apparent that only the Alliance Party can be trusted to deliver on these.

However, we are not here for a political lecture. The relationship between politics and business must be two-way. We are here to listen. We are here to pledge to work in the Assembly, as best we can, to promote policies and laws based on our three key themes and on building a better climate for businesses – and as we do, we will continue to keep up the dialogue with businesses and with other sectors to make Northern Ireland a place we are all proud to call home.


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