SAYS ENTREPRENEUR TONY CARSON
When Mayor Bloomberg addressed a US – Northern Ireland investment conference four years ago, he struck a chord with many entrepreneurs. To me as a businessman, his statement still rings true: The fact is, the best and the brightest don’t want to live in a city defined by division…. The historic cultural barriers between the two communities are slowly coming down, and the sooner they do – and the sooner the physical barriers come down too – the sooner the floodgates of private investment will open.” with the difference that Northern Ireland PLC is currently operating in a much tougher economic climate. It’s even tougher when you still carry the burden of an historical reputation for division and unrest. Pictures of Martin McGuiness with Queen Elizabeth II, of the new Titanic centre, or of the First and Deputy First Ministers together at the Giants Causeway are all useful marketing tools, but not enough to persuade investors to do business in Northern Ireland.
I have a strong commitment to Northern Ireland – I was born and brought up here, though we eventually moved to England as my father, Frank Carson’s, showbiz career took him there. But I return frequently.
My business activities, however, are carried out elsewhere, mainly in the UK and, more recently, in the Republic of Ireland. I have interests in the hospitality industry as well as in manufacturing and communications. I have invested in Northern Ireland’s future – philanthropically – through my involvement in charities including the Integrated Education Fund; but I have not yet felt able to invest here entrepreneurially – and I am representative of many business leaders in this.
But when a company investigates Northern Ireland as a place to do business, there will be a number of factors influencing their decision – economic incentives being a major one, but the social context in which the company would be operating is also crucial.
If you want to set up a business or an outpost of a business, you need to know there is a market – Northern Ireland can certainly provide that. As for potential employees, Northern Ireland can also supply an educated workforce, with an upper stream of high achievers. But academic qualifications are not enough in business terms. To face an increasingly diverse world a job candidate must have a horizon broader than the end of the street where they grew up – a street bounded by “their” church, “their” school and still in some cases “their” mural on the gable end. Successful education produces a willingness to learn, and not just to learn from books; it produces openness to new ideas and viewpoints. The experience of school life is crucial in this and Northern Ireland’s segregated system fails in that respect. And whilst lower tuition fees may keep bright students at home for a few years, a section of talented young people become frustrated with what they see as a restricted society, and seek new and varied experiences elsewhere.
And let’s not forget the “tail” of underachievement, of school-leavers not prepared adequately for the world of work; schools and business must share best practice, and work for the benefit of pupils and not for institutions.
But beyond this, anyone considering inward investment will expect to bring a number of staff with them, especially executives. The way to retain those valuable employees is to offer a lifestyle which is good for them and for their families – at least as good as the one they are being asked to leave. Any suggestion of a divided society here works against that; as long as you have segregated schooling, then a divided society is part of government policy. It will be difficult to persuade the outside world that we have moved on socially even if our towns and streets are largely peaceful; and it will be difficult to attract new talent if we cannot embrace difference – if the perception is that in Northern Ireland people stick to their own kind, the place will not seem likely to welcome newcomers into the classroom.
We have seen In Northern Ireland a change to the police service, a move to make it more open and acceptable to all sections of the community. At Stormont we see cross-community power-sharing and we hear pledges regarding a shared future and a cohesive society. But business leaders are awaiting the firm evidence of a commitment to sharing and integration at grassroots level, enshrined in how housing and schools reflect popular demand for cohesion.
I firmly believe that we can’t address economic problems properly until we’ve addressed social divisions. This will take vision and courage from politicians and decision-makers. Mayor Bloomberg talked about “the sooner barriers come down” a whole four years ago – tomorrow isn’t soon enough. I can see a brave new future for Northern Ireland, but I’m impatient to see it become the present.