Ben Habib

How Boris can save Northern Ireland

How Boris can save Northern Ireland
Boris Johnson and Arlene Foster in Belfast, 2019 (Photo: Getty)
Text settings

Over the past few weeks and months, there has been plenty of focus on the Northern Ireland Brexit Protocol, and the impact it is having on the province. Less attention has been paid, however, to the equally serious problems in Northern Ireland which still need to be solved.

It is an uncomfortable truth, but the problem with Northern Ireland is largely in Westminster. The institutionalised neglect over the past few decades has brought the region to where it is now. How do you know Northern Ireland has been neglected? Easy. Look up the time it takes to travel between just about any town in the province to Belfast by public transport. The results will shock you. It is quicker to get to London from Belfast than it is to Londonderry. The 70-mile trip across the province takes a whopping two hours and twenty minutes. That is an average speed of 30 miles an hour. Travel in Victorian England was faster. It is this kind of neglect which has caused Northern Ireland to become the biggest ‘deficit’ economy in the United Kingdom. But it really does not need to be this way.

Northern Ireland is a classic case of needing the levelling up which the Prime Minister speaks so frequently and fondly of.

There are a few simple things he needs to do.

First and foremost, Boris needs to make sure taxes on businesses are cut. The Chancellor is wrong to increase corporation tax. Doing so will hit Northern Ireland particularly hard and is economically illiterate.

There is already a massive gap in the tax rates between Ireland and Northern Ireland. No sane-minded businessman would open a business in Belfast where the corporation tax rate is 19 per cent and rising, if it could operate equally well in Dublin where it is 12.5 per cent, with breaks to take that rate even lower. The island of Ireland has complete freedom of movement. Unless there is a pressing need to be in Belfast you would choose Dublin every day of the week.

The government has sat idly by and watched as businesses flocked to Dublin. Imagine the difference in Northern Ireland’s fortunes if Apple had chosen to reside in Belfast instead. The corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland should be slashed – ideally to nil. Taxes on consumption and workers should be slashed too. The most obvious taxes to reduce would be VAT, stamp duty, taxes on fuel and National Insurance contributions for those on lower wages. Consumers need a helping hand as well. Putting these two tax policies together would be a powerful cocktail for growth.

There should be a ready supply of capital to facilitate the investment a favourable tax regime would engender. Special funding schemes for banks in the province should be launched, with the promotion of unsecured lending to businesses for investment.

Alongside fiscal reform and the boost in money supply should be a reduction in bureaucracy. Red tape should be cut. Make it easier to get planning permission, to build and to employ people.

And open up the province. It desperately needs a proper rail network, better roads and digital communications as well. An economy cannot move forward without the ability to travel easily and to communicate.

Finally, invest in Belfast. Make it a first class, interconnected, fun city in which to live and work. For Northern Ireland to succeed Belfast must do so.

It also needs at least one world class university. Queen’s university is good but make it world-beating. This would attract the dynamic, aspirational young people businesses require.

It really is that simple.

With the debilitating effects of the Northern Ireland Protocol now playing out, it is doubly important government stops seeing the province as an economically troublesome burden and starts laying plans to make it a tiger economy. Nothing would strengthen our union more than a vibrant economically successful Northern Ireland. Even the sovereign busting impact of the Protocol might have been lessened if the economy had been supercharged with assistance from the mainland.

Sadly, the above is, at least at the moment, the thing of dreams. The government cares not for Northern Ireland. It is not even prepared to take the safeguarding measure of invoking Article 16 of the Protocol – allowing the UK to unilaterally take action against the agreement – in the face of the admitted societal and economic damage caused by the Protocol. If it will not move to protect the people of Northern Ireland, it certainly will not move to elevate them.

So, Lord Frost, let’s start with baby steps – invoke Article 16.