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4 March 2010 Edition

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The Mitchel McLaughlin Column

All-Ireland structures – the future for economic growth

Economic analysts predict internationally that economic recovery will take two or three years.
In the North, when discussing possible responses to the economic downturn, politicians have disagreed over whether seeking more fiscal autonomy would be a positive response to the situation. Sinn Féin has sought at every opportunity to press for this option and it is a legitimate argument for consideration.
Unionists have argued that Westminster may use such an approach to seize on the opportunity to reduce the subvention. Of course that is a predictable reaction but unionists should have the confidence to look at every proposal or option on its merit and the potential benefits rather than view them first and foremost as a constitutional issue.
Such a negative approach should not dominate assessment of the options. In fact, breaking the chains of dependency on the block grant and consequently on the public sector to anchor the economy in the North would be a good thing in the long term for the entire island.
In more benign economic times the overdependence on the public sector in the North was criticised as a significant flaw in the structure of the regional economy. However, in the current economic decline it is acknowledged that the public sector (and the Strategic Infrastructure Investment by the Assembly) has actually protected the regional economy from the worst effects of the downturn. That is the positive; the negative is that this dependence means that recovery will also be slower than in Britain and in the South.  It is estimated that the North could lag as much as 18 months or longer behind other regions when the global recovery emerges.
Likewise, the South is also facing into a massive reappraisal of its economy beyond the current crisis. I believe that as the global economy begins to turn the corner, the opportunities for Sinn Féin to press the argument to radically restructure the economy on the island of Ireland will emerge.
We have consistently criticised the economic consequences of Partition in Ireland. But a very small island on the western seaboard of Europe with a population of 6 million people will always find it difficult in the global marketplace of today.
As a consequence of the existence of two states on the island of Ireland we have replication in government, in economic structures and in the provision of public services such as health, education, energy, transport, roads, etc.  Sinn Féin’s arguments about the waste and cost of this have not yet effectively impacted on the public consciousness.
While ending Partition is viewed by republicans as the logical means to counteract the economic difficulties facing the country and Sinn Féin’s commitment to the principle of National Self Determination is beyond doubt, an issue arises about the effectiveness of our attempts to win support for constitutional change. The predictable difficulty in convincing sufficient unionists to back such an option does not mask the fact that some people in the South would share that scepticism. 
This, therefore, is the conundrum that Sinn Féin must resolve. We have a job to do in convincing sceptics of the long-term benefits of a one-island economy North and South to demonstrate the logic of ending partition.

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