Time for all-party economic forum: Ekin [South Belfast News]

In recent speeches, the Secretary of State, Peter Hain, has challenged local politicians and its people on the Northern Ireland economy. We in Alliance are ready to meet that challenge.

I’d like to explain why we should care about our economy.

To be blunt, our economy is in a mess.

For a start, Alliance has already pointed out the huge amount of money wasted on segregating our public services — from education, to leisure, to health — to the order of £1 billion, year after year.

Those trying to establish business or invest in Northern Ireland are hindered rather than helped. The Government repeatedly hikes up business rates and seizes the best talent for the public sector.

Poverty in Northern Ireland is rife. Families already struggling to make ends met are about to be hit by massive rates increases, water charges and other stealth taxes. Failure to create opportunities for investment will result in more people entering into poverty.

Soaring rates of personal debt are causing severe disruption to families, careers and personal finances across Northern Ireland. Such a situation is likely to get worse. Indeed, Government policies often exacerbate the problem, by encouraging more and more personal spending to prop up a declining economy.

Failure to tackle this vicious circle will ensure that Northern Ireland becomes a dependent, rather than a developing, region. It is up to us to make the change for the better.

For our part, we have put forward proposals to abolish that £1 billion wasted annually. That money should be returned to all of us, through realistic rates, no water charges, and more focus on developing local business and investment.

To realise this, we have called for all political parties to come together, to an all-party economic roundtable. I was part of an Alliance delegation that presented this proposal to the Secretary of State just the other week.

I will also be proposing a positive motion on the economy, at the annual Alliance Party Conference this weekend.

The idea behind our proposals is that during the time of the Multi-Party Talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland missed out in not having our economic future properly addressed. Now that we are discussing Northern Ireland’s political future, it is long overdue to discuss its economic future.

This discussion on our economy is an addition to the political process, not a substitution of it. We need a clear economic package to encourage business and investment, alongside a functioning legislative Assembly with local ministers who can be held responsible for implementing it.

I say to you now, that if by this time next year, people are still facing the prospect of massive rates hikes without any sign of economic or political progress, then it will be a clear sign that the Sectarian Political System has failed the people of Northern Ireland, and must be abandoned.

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