The Windsor Framework should be wonderful news for Northern Ireland’s economy. But even if the DUP and wider unionism do endorse it, this is only the beginning of a necessary new journey if it is to lead to greater prosperity and more jobs.
As we approach the 25 year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we need to recognise that in the intervening time, government here has never worked as it should. If the Assembly and Executive do return, the political parties need to do things differently in the future than they did in the past.
We need politicians from different parties and different traditions to genuinely work together and not against each other, at least within the Executive.
They might hate each other (and some do) but they need to recognise they either hang together, or else they hang separately. It is only by working in government across the party and departmental divides that they can get the things done that our society requires.
Any incoming ministers will have a long list of major reforms to oversee, which are essential if we are to maximise the opportunities from the Windsor Framework and the NI Protocol.
None of those reforms are politically easy or comfortable, nor will they be quick to implement. All the necessary reforms require action from more than one minister, backed by co-operation between departments and across the Executive. This is exactly what Stormont has been bad at. The most pressing issue is health service reform. Long waiting lists and waiting times are more than a crisis for patients and their families. They are a problem for employers dealing with staff illnesses and recruitment challenges. They also impact on the budgets of other departments, such as the Department for Communities that pays out welfare benefits.
The Executive as a whole needs to back the contentious reforms needed to get the health service working properly, supported by multi-year funding commitments required for reform implementation.
The second priority is dealing with our skills deficit. That is not simple to resolve, nor are there instant improvements. One of the ingredients is an improved and coherent careers guidance system.
This needs to support school pupils from an early age to aspire to worthwhile careers. That system — backed by teachers and parents — needs to raise the status of the vocational skills provided by further education colleges. Too many pupils — in particular boys from poorer families — drop out of education too soon and then drop out of the opportunities for well paid and rewarding employment.
At present, we have too many adults without the skills and qualifications needed, so we also need an effective lifelong learning strategy and budget. These actions require joint work by the economy and education departments, which is not usually apparent.
Another aspect of the skills deficit is the inadequate size of our higher education sector. We lose too many of our undergraduates to Great Britain, most of whom do not return. And Derry needs to be a city with a full sized university, meeting the desperate needs of local employers for more graduates with the right skills and experience. Those solutions need co-operation between the finance and economy ministers, who would likely be from opposing parties.
There are numerous other examples of urgent action required, involving more than one department. Expanding free and affordable childcare is necessary to increase labour market participation, but this touches on the roles of our education, communities and economy departments.
Then there is the need for better water, sewerage and transport infrastructure, which are all responsibilities of the infrastructure department, yet which have serious impacts on commercial and housing investments — parts of the remits of the economy and communities departments.
Politicians from differing parties and communities need to work together within the Executive to deliver for the whole of our society. There is nothing wrong with them disagreeing, but that should not prevent them working together pragmatically where they can agree on what needs to be done.
The existing lack of co-operation reflects the absence of true reconciliation a quarter of a century on from the peace process.
NI now has exciting economic opportunities, not least because the housing and other cost pressures in Dublin encourage more businesses based there to consider additional locations in the North — providing we have political stability alongside the favourable trade conditions offered by the Windsor Framework.
There are a range of high value and high waged sectors in which NI could expand substantially, if it is allowed to grasp the opportunity now on offer. Those include renewable energy, advanced manufacturing, fintech and pharma/bio-tech.
We have had years of sometimes low value, low waged inward investment. Now is the time to expand in the sectors and clusters that give our society a chance to genuinely prosper. Let’s take it.