Newton Emerson: What is North’s policy on jobs and immigration?
British government wants to use Brexit to substitute migrant workers with the unemployed
Belfast, 1989: “High unemployment was hardly unique to Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s but it combined with the Troubles to create a grim sense of inevitability – it felt like there would always be few jobs and even fewer prospects.” File photograph: Getty Images
The Northern Ireland I grew up in was a place of no outsiders and no jobs.
Even an English person (out of uniform) was a novelty, while the unemployment rate peaked at 15 per cent.
These two facts defined everyday life, although in different ways. The lack of outsiders went largely unremarked most of the time but had all-pervading consequences, leaving us parochial and self-obsessed throughout the Troubles, with a stagnant, traditional society. The sort of tourists and journalists who did wash up on our shores often made matters worse by indulging our sense of exceptionalism. Perspective was in laughably short supply – people could be surprised, bemused or even angry if overseas visitors did not show a detailed understanding of our history and politics.
History will remember the DeLorean Motor Company but other firms and individuals raised equally plaintive hopes, sometimes with far more improbable schemes
The lack of jobs, by contrast, was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Closures and layoffs vied with shootings and bombings to lead the news. High unemployment was hardly unique to Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s but it combined with the Troubles to create a grim sense of inevitability – it felt like there would always be few jobs and even fewer prospects. Any young person with gumption was expected to be planning their escape. I was well into my mid-20s before this ceased to be a dominant topic of conversation. Anyone who believes those years returned after the 2008 crash is mistaken. Heading to Australia on a casual work visa carries little of the frustration and permanence of a Troubles-era departure.
Sense of connection
There was no real sense of a connection between the lack of outsiders and the lack of jobs, beyond the desperate quest for foreign investment in general. History will remember the DeLorean Motor Company but other firms and individuals raised equally plaintive hopes, sometimes with far more improbable schemes.
For the next two decades it was unimaginable that outsiders would ever return to Portadown, let alone in their thousands
My association of foreigners as bringers of jobs is perhaps unusually strong. I grew up in a part of Portadown where international companies lured to the new city of Craigavon rented houses for their expatriate managers. As a child I had English, German and American friends and neighbours – I cringe now to think how cosmopolitan that seemed. But then they all left, taking the last of the optimism with them. Even at a young age the gloom was perceptible.
For the next two decades it was unimaginable that outsiders would ever return to Portadown, let alone in their thousands. However, what is truly novel about our latest arrivals is not their numbers but the complete reversal of economic circumstances. They are here now to work in our factories, not manage them, and they rent their houses from people who might once have done their jobs.
For the native-born population, being out of work appears to have almost vanished as a major concern, although quality of work remains an issue. Compared to the 1970s and 1980s, Northern Ireland has solid figures for unemployment and job creation. Where we still fail spectacularly is on economic inactivity – the percentage of people opting out of the labour market, which bumps along stubbornly at 27 per cent. In economic terms this is a calamity, yet only economists seem to care.
Has immigration helped us reach what might once have been called an acceptable level of joblessness? It feels like we have barely begun to think about that before everything is about to be transformed again.
Northern Ireland’s agrifood sector recently warned a Westminster committee that only migrant workers will do its shop-floor jobs
The British government, our de facto direct ruler as of tomorrow, wants to use Brexit to substitute migrant workers with the unemployed and economically inactive. Under proposals already announced, immigration quotas will be linked to training schemes for UK citizens. Brexit secretary David Davis has conceded this will take “years and years” but Northern Ireland has proved it can go decades without considering the impact of such policies.
Davis published a white paper in February offering to set quotas by sector and region. Northern Ireland’s agrifood sector recently warned a Westminster committee that only migrant workers will do its shop-floor jobs. It does not believe any amount of training or benefit cuts will produce a viable pool of local recruits. This was an argument for a high sectoral quota. What argument would Stormont make for a regional quota, assuming it ever meets again? What case would we like our elected representatives to make?
There is no sign we are politically equipped to even ask that question. As with welfare reform, to which this issue is now related, we may assume that London will be left to answer it for us.