Belfast Briefing: North’s economic woes far down No 10’s priority list
A nod in the direction of the devolution of corporation tax would have helped
British prime minister David Cameron is rightly worried about what the fallout will be for the rest of the UK if Northern Ireland gets the right to set its own corporation tax rates. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA
Have you ever been recommended to take a “tonic” when you are feeling run down and low?
Often the promise that a certain concoction may deliver a miraculously reinvigorating boost is all that is needed to get the ball rolling towards a recovery.
Hope is as important as a cure.
Which is why the British prime minister’s refusal to dispense one very specific tonic to aid Northern Ireland’s ailing economy is such a major setback for the North at this moment.
Consider Northern Ireland as a seriously ill patient with a strong potential to take a turn for the worse.
For a start its symptoms are far from encouraging – unemployment is climbing rapidly, there appears to be no way of stemming local businesses going bust and potential new inward investment “donors” are keener on the patient in the next bed.
Few people seriously expected David Cameron last week to write Northern Ireland a cure-all corporation tax prescription. But Cameron and his advisers could have recommended a new course of treatment – from tackling the local jobless crisis to helping struggling businesses get the finance they need to survive – that could have at the very least created some kind of placebo effect in the North.
Short of throwing lots more money, which the UK government simply does not have any more, to find a cure for all of Northern Ireland's economic ills, it might have just have been a simpler solution to nod in the direction of the devolution of corporation tax.
As it is, all David Cameron and his treasury colleagues have done is created a mood of despair that is not likely to lift for some time.
Cameron is rightly worried about what the fallout will be for the rest of the UK if Northern Ireland gets the right to set its own corporation tax rates.
But for once this is not just a case of Northern Ireland wanting something for nothing.
Northern Ireland is not where it was predicted to be 15 years after the Good Friday agreement was signed.
When local celebrity chefs such as Paul Rankin are forced to close what was previously the North’s first Michelin-starred restaurant and new car sales slump, what does that say about how lifestyles in Northern Ireland have changed with peace?
Perhaps what Cameron and his UK treasury officials should have looked more closely at is not what it might cost them now to devolve corporation tax to the North, but instead consider the price the UK and people in Northern Ireland might have to pay in the not too distant future if plans are not put in place to resuscitate the local economy.
A dispute over flags is just one symptom that has come to the fore – Cameron can expect more to follow when Northern Ireland’s traditional incubation period for infectious problems really kicks in during the early summer.
So with the corporation tax tonic firmly out of reach for now, the North really needs to consider some serious self-help solutions.
Tried and tested options that have worked elsewhere such as encouraging more local businesses to expand and export and getting more people to take a risk and go into business in the first place need to be desperately nurtured.
If they are, it could help to bring some colour back into the complexion of poorly towns and cities across the North.
Small steps, as the experience of one local entrepreneur, Dr Geoff Hayhurst, has shown, can be the best way to build a solidly healthy enterprise.
A few years ago Hayhurst, who is a well known osteopath in Belfast, started bottling his own pioneering Omega fish oil product in his kitchen just for his patients.
Hayhurst developed a natural, now patented, method to protect essential Omega fatty acids and keep them fresh by blending them with polyphenol antioxidants.
Soon word-of-mouth recommendations meant he could barely keep up with demand for his product which his children referred to the “paradox thing” he mixed in their kitchen when they came home from school.
A joint research project with the University of Ulster’s School of Biomedical Sciences confirmed Hayhurst’s confidence in his products and his east Belfast based company Paradox Omega Oils has gone from supplying just one local pharmacy chain to become a market leader in the UK and Ireland.
He still experiments at his kitchen table but today Hayhurst’s six strong product range is exported across the Middle East and South Asia.
His success shows that it is not only the big ideas that make a difference – sometimes a small, determined effort, boosted by belief and hope, is just as powerful.