Friday, 4 October 2013

Living Downstream

The announcement that the American firm, Stream, is creating almost a thousand new jobs in East Belfast will take some of the heat off at least one local MLA, the beleaguered First Minister Peter Robinson. His party has been rattled by allegations – from some of the most strident voices in the loyalist community – of ‘neglect’ of working class Protestant areas. The jobs-boost will quieten those critics for a while, although I doubt whether Mr Robinson will be given much long-term credit by his ‘in-house’ detractors.

While welcomed on Laganside, news of the expansion was received with stunned and perplexed disbelief in Derry, where people feel like they’ve been mugged.

It’s ironic that one Programme for Government commitment – concerning the Maze-Long Kesh project – is regarded as a deal-breaker, while another “addressing regional imbalance as we move ahead” – is not. It really has come to a sorry pass when the only people even talking about the need to “rebalance” the economy are the Tories, and their “semi-detached” Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.  

Stream used to run a substantial call centre in Derry, at one point employing up to one thousand people. What a coincidence. The operation there began to stutter around the time the downturn hit, finally giving up the ghost in 2011. The company now maintains a spectral presence of only 15 staff in Derry. The whiff of rodent is almost over-powering.

I’ve no doubt that most people in East Belfast will say that “Londonderry” should take its oil. But the revelation that the East Belfast jobs deal was lubricated by £3m of Invest Northern Ireland cash makes the announcement that bit harder to swallow in the North West, where unemployment – once endemic – now feels like a contagion. It is frightening that in August – two thirds of the way through its stint as UK City of Culture – there were more people signing on in Derry than at the end of last year.

Among them, I assume, were people who worked for Stream in the past. I have no doubt that they are still perfectly capable of doing so. The company’s reasons for developing its Belfast operation sound unconvincing. I can think of three million better ones.  

Executive ministers must have racked up frequent-flyer bonuses aplenty as they traversed the globe – from Brazil to China – trying to drum up business. If investors in far-off Rio and Beijing can be induced to commit to Northern Ireland, then why can’t they be encouraged to go the extra mile (well, 75 miles, actually), and locate in the North West? If there are logistical, or infrastructural, or skills-deficit barriers to such investment, then why aren’t these being tackled? What of the other PfG commitment to “develop the ‘One Plan’ for the regeneration of Derry/Londonderry”?

There has been much talk, on both sides of the Assembly floor, of the need to build a “shared” future. In the Stormont bubble, that energy has been concentrated exclusively on our very narrow definition of ‘culture’. It should be applied with even more fervour, and much greater urgency, to economic development.

I will watch with interest to see how Stream develops its Northern Ireland operation in future; in which constituencies it creates new jobs; and how INI supports it. I will, of course, apply the same level of scrutiny to other economic development as well, with equal fervour.

Politics here is becoming so reminiscent of the sixties that I fear I’m starting to see things only in black and white. Sometimes, though, monochrome provides the clearest view.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Cat Flap or Crisis?

Not for the first time in his life, Danny Morrison has set the cat among the pigeons. The former Sinn Féin publicity director penned a piece on the website, suggesting that the power-sharing administration at Stormont was teetering perilously close to collapse.

A range of politicians and commentators have been at pains recently to downplay any talk of crisis. Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that he wouldn’t call it that [a crisis], “but clearly there are a lot of difficulties to overcome.” Secretary of State Theresa Villiers pointed out that work was still going on in the Executive and that disagreement was “a fact of life in any coalition”. First Minister Peter Robinson recommended that “Everyone should cool their jets.”

As the shrill whine of Robinson’s engines fades away, though, I can hear above it the piercing screech not of Morrison’s  but of Schrödinger’s cat.

The Austrian quantum physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, devised a theoretical experiment to expose the flaws in the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics; ‘Copenhagen’ held that – until observed – a particle existed in all states simultaneously. However, in his experiment, involving a hypothetical cat in a box, along with a bottle of poison and some radioactive material, Schrödinger pointed out that in reality – whether observed or not – the cat could only be either dead or alive, not both at the same time.

So either there is a crisis at Stormont or there isn’t. It doesn’t matter how obvious or obscured it is, nor by whom or from where the situation is observed. If one of the main parties says things are critical – and the evidence suggests that they are – then that should be good enough for all of us.

Having left Sinn Féin, Morrison no longer speaks ex cathedra but, while no longer the messenger, he is surely still ‘on message’. That makes his admission to despondency all the more worrying. He already appears resigned to losing the Maze/Long Kesh development, with its promised 5,000 jobs and £300m of investment. More disturbingly, Morrison fears that the whole power-sharing edifice could crumble with it. “I hope I am wrong,” he told the Mallie website, “but I suspect that the Assembly could collapse. If unionists are thinking this cannot happen, they should think again.”

Think again indeed. A common or garden tabby has the sense to look before it leaps. If the Stormont structures collapse again, we have some – but only some – idea what will replace them. Direct rule from London. Input from Dublin. Theresa Villiers at the steering wheel. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore navigating.

Hold that thought for a moment. Gilmore’s been criticised for his ‘hands-off’ approach to the North (the suspicion is that he couldn’t be bothered). Villiers has been accused of being “semi-detached”. Such has been her impact in Northern Ireland, she was introduced to her own party conference as “the Secretary of State for Scotland”. For the more literate among us, Plan B is starting to read more like Plan Z.

More pious MLAs may be aware of Christ’s warning that “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid  waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” (Matthew 12:25) The omens don’t look good. If we can’t find comfort in religion or science, can we really expect to get it from our politicians?

Our representatives have played cat and mouse long enough. It’s time to get sensible; time to get real. If they don’t, it won’t be a US envoy Stormont will need, it’ll be a vet – to put it out of its misery.