I realise I can’t argue for a Border Poll under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and just ignore the fact that there is a whole Strand One on local powersharing. I am a cherry picker in many things, but not in my peace agreements. But walking on the sunny side of the street doesn’t mean we don’t have our eyes open. And there is one happy department worth keeping our little eyes on. The department for the Economy. Yeah that department responsible for RHI, where a bit of roguish renegade behaviour went on.
Diane Dodds is its new minister. The newly co-opted member for Upper Bann replaced Carla Lockhart MLA who was elected MP. This was an undoubted relief to the Dodds’ bank manager when Diane was facing unemployment with Brexit ending her MEP career, and husband Nigel had been deposed from his MP seat in North Belfast. Mrs Dodds is a Eurosceptic and was to that end a loud voice in Brussels as MEP. In particular, she used to position to amplify the DUP’s Westminster movable Brexit feast position, during the heady if brief confidence and supply years with the Conservative Party.
Now Diane has a new focus with a senior and key role in the tentative yet positive Executive, and its unanimous stated focus on “delivery”. Her role will be at the sharp end of the consequences of Brexit. Basically, she has to attract investment and devise economic strategy in the context of a wholly different and impaired economic and trade environment. Of course this impaired environment was something she advocated, and must make her new role as minister more challenging than anyone could ever have imagined.
European inward investment is normally attracted by access toa skilled and educated workforce, freedom of movement in the context of modern global economies and, critically, access to markets. Brexit obviously is going to make all of those factors more difficult if not impossible. But Minister Dodds is gliding along like the proverbial swan without mentioning the B word.
Right now, we know young people in the North of Ireland can expect to come away from their education system less well qualified and skilled than their peers living in the south or even in Britain. I know that is hard to believe given the incredible and brilliant young people that surround us, but the figures don’t lie. Proportionately less will finish their education with secondary and third level qualifications. Brexit will make that even worse with less access to European centres of learning and associated opportunities. Freedom of Movement will be restricted. A key desirable for the Tories but disastrous for a modern economy. And with markets East/West will be deliberately impeded with the inevitable restrictions, despite the Withdrawal Agreement and Boris Johnson’s wayward assurances. The picture looks bleak for persuading those choosing where to invest.
When questioned last week however Diane Dodds was tone deaf to Brexit and instead talked about reducing corporation tax. Utterly unconvincing old tat in the context of what is facing her.
There is no magic bullet to the challenges which face the local economy, and anything that does emerge will be in the context of maximising all island relationships. Will Mrs Dodds be capable to steering this most challenging of ships in these most adverse of conditions? We wait to see.