Our politicians need to be business-like



A blog post by Tony Carson, businessman and supporter of the Integrated Education Fund.

I was born and began school life in Belfast, though the family moved on as my father Frank’s career took off beyond Northern Ireland. I took a degree in business before moving into the food services sector and later gradually diversifying my activities. I have always maintained an interest in social issues – actively supporting integrated education, for example, whilst keeping a distance from politics. But my frustration with the Stormont parties is mounting. I want to see Northern Ireland flourish; and I realise that we need a genuinely business-like approach to politics and government.

I have frequently set out the economic arguments for a system of integrated schools in NI –rationalisation in the face of budget cuts and over-supply, of places and the improvement to the NI “brand” if we present a cohesive, progressive aspect to the international business community.

But beyond this, applying business sense to the way the Executive and Assembly work would bring dividends for everyone.

My business template is to look for niche products within a mass market – my main driver is a wish to be disruptive, to change the model. Growing means taking risks; taking risks demands optimism; and maximising the potential of success means bringing people together with a common aim, on a joint venture. Surely that same impetus could be applied successfully to drive NI politics forwards?

The skill lies in communicating potential to fellow investors and to workers in the business. When you start out on a business venture you are planning and constructing a story. Some may not believe in fairy-tale endings, but without a belief that the final chapter will be one of success, business would not grow.

Instead of giving out a negative message about “the other side”, political leaders should be giving positive messages to children and young people. Write for us a story of Northern Ireland which ends well. I’ve inherited that from Frank: a tendency to find the positive, and to bring others together on that basis.

This change of approach means taking brave steps but that is what investment is. Why take a timid step and stop at a half-way point? Let’s go for integrated schools and see them multiply rather than tinker with the problem by throwing money at shared education.

Here I go looking for disruption again, but as an entrepreneur I have succeeded by challenging the status quo. I can see a parallel in how integrated education began, more than three decades ago. The founding parents decided what was lacking in the Northern Ireland education system and built their own product, building a team along the way. Every integrated school exists because of their belief and optimism. When will we see proper investment in the model, with the government pro-actively creating integrated schools to meet demand?

The international image of Northern Ireland, with increasing tourism and major sports events staged here, gets better and better. But for Worldwide plc to actually set up shop in NI, politicians have to be the catalyst and focus on putting people first rather than on scoring points against each other.

The Carson Awards programme for arts and creativity, which I support through the IEF, has shown me that young people in NI – full of imagination and ingenuity – share my wish to see barriers broken down and communities brought together. So I can see a brave new future for Northern Ireland. The sooner it becomes the present, the better. But it needs our political leaders to get down to business.