In March 2008, a massive shopping centre opened in Belfast after years of work that refashioned a significant part of the city centre. Victoria Square was opened with tremendous fanfare and trumpeted as symbolic of a bright new future under the new dispensation. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Several stores have closed due to the failure of their parent companies, and now comes the bad news that 100 more jobs are being lost with the closure of two restaurants in the supermall. Although those who run the centre have announced that four new retailers will create 70 new and part time jobs, it is clear that the mall itself has failed to meet the expectations of those who built it, and those who saw it as representing a bright new economic future.
This raises the question of the economic development strategy pursued by the authorities in NI over a number of years. Basically, all our eggs have been put in the basket of low-paid and unskilled jobs in call centres and the retail sector on the one hand; and begging the Americans and EU for investment on the other. This may have seemed logical after the failure of heavily-subsidised high-profile industrial enterprises – Delorean being the classic example – and the Thatcherite policy of destroying the UK’s industrial base. It was also a strategy facilitated by the massive expansion of credit on which the false economy worldwide has been based, but which governments and economists told us was bringing an end to boom and bust.
However, as we can see from our own experience as well as that of others, it is not and cannot be a sustainable economic policy. Even the very term, ‘the real economy’, that has become popular tells us where we should be focusing our efforts. If we wish to have a government strategy aimed at creating valuable and sustainable jobs, then the NI executive must focus its efforts on developing native – preferably state-owned – industry jobs, whether they be in technology or manufacturing. Will they have the courage to stop up to the plate and argue for this against the prevailing hostility to the state’s involvement in the economy (unless it is giving huge sums to banks and multi-nationals of course)? I doubt it. But I’d like to see them do so. And we need them to do so.