[Sinn Fein]

20 February 1998


Charting a Course for the Future



May I begin by thanking the Chamber of Commerce for organising this series of lunch-time talks and, in particular, for inviting me to speak to you. To my knowledge this is the first initiative of this kind and, therefore, one that the Chamber deserves credit for. In the situation we all find ourselves today, it is crucial that frank and open dialogue takes place across as wide a spectrum as possible. To talk to a significant part of the business community in the North of Ireland on economic issues is something I view as a key priority and one that can help considerably in advancing the peace process and finding a political settlement for a new and agreed Ireland.

Over the years, Sinn Fein's position on many issues has often been ignored, misrepresented. This has been no less the case with regard to economic policy as it has on others. In the last few years, however, we have made it our duty, wherever possible, to enter into dialogue with organisations representing a wide range of interests in an attempt to broaden and deepen our understanding of each other. Some of you here today will have already sat across the table from me and other Sinn Fein representatives. These meetings have allowed Sinn Fein to increase our understanding and awareness of the perspectives and concerns of the business community and, just as importantly, allow you to learn about our views of the type of economy we wish to strive for, the strategic vision and approach that is needed and the political conditions required for economic success.

In pursuing this dialogue, I hope that we have managed to dispel at least some of the more bizarre thoughts that some have traditionally and misleadingly held about our economic views. It's in furthering this agenda that I wish to speak today. While I would not expect you all to agree with everything I say on economic issues, never mind other matters, I believe that we do have much in common. I believe, therefore, that we can find ways of working together and, hopefully, achieving a great deal.

Much of what I'm going to say here come from a recent Sinn Fein policy document on economic policy called Putting People First that we published last month. This document that resulted from extensive consultation and discussion with the people and communities we represent and other more critical bodies who helped to sharpen our views.

Our party leadership, under the tutelage of Sinn Fein's National Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin, has also been engaged in some very useful discussions with the Group of 7. From our viewpoint we welcome and support this dialogue and I personally wish to see them deepened and developed in an effort to encourage a healthy discourse around the economic and social imperatives facing the people of this island.

For their part I believe that the social partners and the other key economic organisations involved have coalesced to give expression to broad economic and social issues which they fear may be sidestepped by the Talks Process. So far however there does not appear to be a worked up common perspective or indeed an exact strategic purpose. This is understandable. There has however been some useful suggestions of how to further strategic thinking upon economic and social matters and we welcome that.

We have an open mind on the models which have been suggested and we have confirmed our willingness to be involved in the G7 initiative and in the formulation of a viable process separate from or part of, the peace process, and aimed at comprehensively addressing economic and social dimensions. There is a need from a practical point of view for careful preliminary thought on the objectives and parameters of such an process; its method of operation and the underpinning structures and we look forward to discussing these with G7 and we commend your endeavours.

Hopefully the points I am setting out here today will help to inform all of us as we develop the necessary processes to bring about a lasting peace and justice.

Strategic Viewpoint

The starting point for Sinn Fein's economic perspective is that we wish to realise an entirely new social and economic order in Ireland which cherishes all our people equally and prizes equality and justice. The unfortunate reality of today's Ireland, both North and South, is that we remain some distance from such transformation. Here in the north we are on the periphery of the British economy while the south, with its Celtic tiger, works separately taking best advantage of economic imperatives, especially within the European Union.

But, ordinary people and whole communities within urban and rural Ireland endure entrenched unemployment, poverty, emigration, multifaceted disadvantage, social exclusion and endemic inequalities. A third of the people of this island live below poverty level. So, at the core of our political programme is a commitment to eradicate the causes of these prevailing injustices.

We see a 32 county Republic with a new union with our nearest neighbours as the best way to achieve this. It is no accident that 200 years ago Belfast town was galvanised by such thinking and those who fought hardest in the 1798 rebellion were the Presbyterians of Antrim and Down. But that is history. Today, many people from that background do not share this view which is fair enough. So we must all look at each others models. But what is central is agreement on the objective to make Ireland a better place for all of the people who live here. That is certainly our intention.

We see the need for five main elements to be pursued:

(i) The creation of a fully integrated all-Ireland economy

The integration of the two parts of Ireland is clearly central to our republican thinking. Such integration is essential for us not just politically but also economically. It is our belief that the continuation of economic division within Ireland will simply continue the failures of the past and frustrate our efforts to maximise economic and social benefits for all on the island. In this regard, we welcome greatly the efforts of the business sectors, North and South. to promote the idea of the single island economy.

It does not make sense that an island like ours with only 5 million people should be duplicating services, structures and administrations and that there should be rivalry and competition between those bodies, north and south, which are charged with promoting the business potential of their respective areas. Ireland as a single economic region makes sense both in our own domestic context and in selling ourselves to other markets.

I urge you to continue your efforts in this regard, whether it be in terms of increasing North-South trade, promoting economic networks and corridors across the island or pushing for the harmonisation of government economic policy. I know that many northern businesses are concerned about the differences between tax regimes in the six and 26 counties. The disparity between the 10% and 30% corporation tax rates in both states in an impediment to economic development. Sinn Fein supports tax equality on the island. This change in tax must be matched by an equity in income tax. This is not just a challenge for the British government. It is a challenge for the Irish government also.

A crucial issue in furthering economic integration and creating an all-Ireland economy, in our view, is the need for institutional change and development at the all-Ireland level. The democratic view of the type of political settlement that will come out of the current talks process is that it must be based in an explicit all-Ireland context. This means that new, dynamic and powerful government institutions must be put in place that have a clear all-Ireland dimension. This means that such government bodies must have wide executive powers, not least in the broad area of economic development.

As Sinn Fein has made clear we want to go much further than this and we will judge any transitional arrangements in this context.

For us the key reasons for such bodies are political, but there are strong economic reasons also. While there will no doubt be many here today who will baulk at such a development, it is clear that the Northern business community has in general given its support to the need for some sort of government action and institutions to facilitate all-Ireland economic integration. The single island economy will simply not come about otherwise.

(ii) The transformation of the war economy in the North into a productive and development peace-time economy

The economy in the North is sustained only by huge levels of public expenditure, reflected in the annual subvention from the British tax-payer of around 4 billion. This level of dependence reflects not just the underdeveloped and unproductive nature of much industry in the North, itself a reflection in our view of the debilitating effect of partition, but, importantly, the highly militarised nature of the economy. If the economic benefits of peace and a political settlement are to be realised, the reallocation of resources, currently employed so unproductively needs to be a top priority.

It was disappointing in this respect that the recent comprehensive spending review by the British government fell far short of tackling this issue. Strategic thinking needs to be put in place now, together with discussion of the institutions required to instigate post-conflict development.

(iii) The elimination of the economic distortions created by partition.

While the creation of an all-Ireland economy will do much to promote development, it is our view that there are specific economic problems along the border that require specific attention. In the absence of initiatives to regenerate the border region, there is every possibility that development will pass it by and that its peripheral economic status within Ireland will continue. One proposal that has bee put forward, with our full support, in an attempt to impact on these problems is the creation of a Border Development Commission. The need for economic development along the border and the wider needs of rural areas is something which needs high priority.

(iv) Social and economic justice for regions and social groups in Ireland

Balanced and socially inclusive economic development are essential aspects of economic success. Currently, not only are there huge regional imbalances between different regions within Ireland, but there are also substantial social and economic inequalities within cities and towns and in rural areas. The years of economic and political discrimination against nationalist communities and areas must stop whether it be in terms of employment or the allocation of government funding. While we give qualified support to the British government's Targeting Social Need (TSN) and Policy Appraisal for Fair Treatment (PAFT) initiatives, we have yet to see clear commitment from government departments and agencies and evidence that real change and improvement are taking place. Confidence in the political process demands economic equality and justice for all. Without equality a settlement is impossible.

(v) The introduction and promotion of genuine, deep and meaningful economic democracy

Economic democracy is central to our political programme. We believe that people and local communities have to be at the centre of economic development policy. Sinn Fein believes socio-economic change must be shaped by the needs and expectations of ordinary people. We contend that the orthodox approach to economic planning and development has contributed to the range of economic difficulties in Ireland, North and South, and more specifically at the level of the local community. This can only be reversed by redefining the process by which decisions are made and change is effected. Ultimately, this must translate into local communities being allowed to become centrally involved in planning and making decisions about economic development programmes which directly affect the.

To some of you this may sound idealistic and out of touch with reality. However, adopting a people-centred approach to economic development encourages innovation and participation. It stimulates new forms of enterprise and, most crucially, fosters democratic models of community economic regeneration. Sinn Fein believes that placing an emphasis upon what has become known as the `social economy' provides a vital framework for involving local communities in the formulation of strategies designed to effect immediate change to their own lives. Moreover, it creates opportunities for people to begin exercising an influence over future economic and social structures in Ireland. By drawing from the experience and practice of the social economy, communities can begin to democratise the nature of economic development.

The Role of Business

In presenting these views many of you are probably wondering where business fits into our thinking. People are involved in business to make a living, to make a profit and we are told within democratic capitalism to help others to make a living. This must include their trade union and labour rights.

The main reason we have engaged in dialogue with business representative bodies such as the Chamber of Commerce in the last few years is exactly because we believe that business has a key role to play in securing the conditions from which a political settlement may be agreed. The business community can not stand above the conflict that has inflicted the North of Ireland in recent decades. Indeed we would say, that you have a crucial contribution to make to the resolution of all of the problems which beset all sections of our people.

Business now seems to be beginning to take greater responsibility for our economic and political future. This can be seen clearly in the participation of the range of bodies, including the Chamber of Commerce, in the so-called Group of Seven (G7) and the dialogue they have had with the political parties, including ourselves, and the British government. I regard this as a significant and welcome development if it can contribute in its own way to economic progress and a just and lasting peace. And we thank you all for your efforts and we wish you well.

Business, both the small and medium sized indigenous firm and the multinational corporation, must facilitate investment and economic development. In particular, Sinn Fein believes that business has a key role to play in helping to regenerate disadvantaged areas. It is areas such as West Belfast that have suffered most from division and conflict.

Business must show a commitment to these areas, both nationalist and republican, the Shankill and the Falls, Donegall Pass and Short Strand, and West of the Bann. This will require not only investing in new factories or services or expanding those facilities that already exist, but it means injecting private resources to rebuild social infrastructures which is so clearly lacking at present. Such action could, for example, include the development of training and educational facilities, research and development units or the expansion of tourism and cultural activities.

I believe business can offer much. If development is to be effective, however, it must be inclusive, with local communities being given the chance to consult and participate with the private sector. Genuine partnerships must be developed between the various elements of local economies, involving community representatives, business, the trade unions and government. An integrated, strategic and democratic approach is required. While there have been clear difficulties along the way, much has been achieved in developing local partnerships in the context of the European Union's Special Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. However, there is clearly much still to be done.

Likewise, while laudable developments have taken place in recent years, far greater linkages need to be fostered between the business sectors North and South. Cross-border co-operation and co-ordination need to occur across every aspect of business activity and strategic thinking and organisation on all-Ireland basis are required to maximise the economic benefits. Such developments would be of benefit not just to the commercial and economic interests of business itself, but, crucially, would put in place the necessary conditions for a political settlement.


In conclusion, may I repeat what I began by saying. I realise that many of you will not agree with much of what Sinn Fein stands for. However, I believe that the last few years have shown that we share much common ground, especially in the economic sphere, perhaps more than you are willing to admit. It is certainly true that we all have a responsibility to do what we can together to meet the many economic and social needs we face. Sinn Fein will continue to sit down with the business sector and others where we feel that a co-ordinated and concerted approach can help to tackle the deep economic and social problems which continue to disfigure too much to Ireland today. The primacy of Sinn Fein attaches to economic planning and development is a key to shedding the legacy of partition, division, disadvantage and economic injustice in Ireland.

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