In recent months, Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy has been outspoken in his criticisms of the draft Industrial Strategy and has suggested that economic stagnation is “the legacy of DUP failures in government”. Ciarán Galway visits Stormont to meet with the party’s economy spokesperson.
Opening the discussion, Murphy is keen to assert that economic underperformance is not a new phenomenon. “We have traditionally had a low rate of economic growth and a high rate of economic inactivity. Increasingly, we have a low wage economy which turns into a low level of productivity,” the former Minister outlines.
At the same time, he acknowledges that there have also been “some very good news stories here”, such as tourism, investment in infrastructure and some steps taken to address regional economic imbalance.
The overarching constraint, Murphy suggests, is that we live on a partitioned island which stunts economic growth. “We have become an adjunct to Britain. The economy here has never become self-sufficient and has always relied on subsidy of some sort. We can argue about the level of subsidy required.”
Now, the economic spokesman continues, these “historical problems” are met with a backdrop of increased austerity. “Even when the Executive was functioning, we had about £5 billion removed from the budget and the prospect for further cuts to the resources available to any Executive over the next number of years. That hampers economic growth and the ability of the Executive to invest in infrastructure and supporting industry through policy initiatives for the various sectors.”
Murphy explains that, at the core of Sinn Féin’s economic policy, is a desire to see “inclusive growth”, not only in the North, but across the island. “We are arguing for a new Ireland and a constitutional change on the island which would be economically beneficial.
“What we would argue for is not merely the absorption of six counties into a 26-county economic model, but rather for a model focused on inclusive growth. In the South, the lack of inclusive growth is economic. The economic boom of 10, 15 and 20 years ago was not spread evenly and did not lift all boats.”
In the midst of rapid economic growth in the South, the Sinn Féin MLA indicates that lessons must be learned from the past to ensure that this growth is regionally balanced. “Our idea of an inclusive growth model, which envisions prosperity, businesses flourishing and enhanced competitiveness, would see these benefits spread to all areas,” he says.
Murphy is adamant that it is in Sinn Féin’s interest to make the North work economically. “First and foremost, I am elected by constituents in the Newry and Armagh constituency – people who go out every day to make a living – it is my interest to represent their interests. This is applicable across all the constituencies.
“We recognise the limitations of the northern set-up – the fact that it has not been economically successful and the factors which restrict its ability to be so. We want to change that,” he details.
The party, Murphy maintains, wants to ensure a “successful and smooth transition” to Irish reunification. “As such, we don’t want to render the North an economic wasteland because that brings a whole other set of tensions and political difficulties. We would like to see a prosperous Ireland, across all 32 counties, establishing a new constitutional and economic framework.”
Murphy discloses that, in the absence of the Assembly, his party continues to engage with business and industry, particularly in relation to Brexit challenges. Likewise, Sinn Féin has met with the Department for the Economy regarding the draft Industrial Strategy and challenged what it regards as “deficiencies”.
“In the short-term, we want to see properly thought-through policy interventions, including financial support, which enables business to do better. To provide the groundwork for that, it is necessary to conduct a proper analysis,” he affirms.
“We recognise the limitations of the northern set-up – the fact that it has not been economically successful and the factors which restrict its ability to be so. We want to change that.”
“We would argue that the Department’s draft Industrial Strategy did not have a proper analysis of what the problems were. In fact, it glossed over low productivity, high economic inactivity and regional imbalance. Instead, it highlighted a series of positive figures which, in our view, do not measure the existing problems. We argued that the Department should take the type of approach which incorporates analyses of the industrial sectors, to determine the obstacles to growth.”
Acknowledging the finite nature of resources, Murphy advocates “some degree of prioritisation in terms of identifying key interventions”, in terms of both financial support and in policy terms. Likewise, he suggests that extracting policy from departmental silos will produce a much more holistic response to the challenges faced by industry.
“You might find that planning policy works against the development of business in certain areas and rates policy works against retail in town centres. We need specific information about the problems that each sector faces and what would have an impact, while also recognising that there is an impact to what any department can do in the context of austerity,” he adds.
While clarifying that his party has a different approach, Murphy believes that both it and the DUP share a mutual desire to ensure a prosperous society. Though, he alludes to political decisions taken by the DUP which are contrary to this goal.
“They have a much more market-orientated approach and that’s why we have criticised their development of the industrial strategy and their stewardship of the Department for the Economy. The DUP had the portfolio for 10 years, so it can’t escape criticism in terms of the fact that we are going backwards. Our near neighbours are all doing better.
“[The DUP] hasn’t tackled any of the actual problems in terms of economic growth. There have been successes and highlighting them is fine, but if you want a department to actually look at what’s wrong in the economy and how to fix that in the short-to-medium term, then you need an honest analysis,” he insists.
Moreover, Murphy denounces DUP support for austerity and Brexit as damaging the prospect of economic growth and investment. “We differentiate too from their lack of interest in tackling things like regional imbalance. Some of it is historic and some of it is more recent. I presume, from a DUP mindset, that if you’re going to tackle those things then you’re going to have to admit to the failure of the legacy of unionism running the state for 50 years. Perhaps that’s why they choose to gloss over and present only the positives.
“In terms of attracting investment and encouraging confidence then you do have to present [the positives], but you can’t skip the analysis of what the problems are.”
One of the restrictions identified by Murphy is the absence of fiscal levers for the Executive. Referencing the Smith Commission in Scotland, he argues for an examination of what fiscal powers could be devolved to enable local intervention. “We are very much up for looking at that, but all we get presented with are suggestions of charging people for water, ending free prescriptions, taking free travel off the elderly and increasing rates, because those are the only options on the table.
“We have argued for other levers which can be applied in a fairer way and may actually yield more resources for the Executive. If there was a unified approach within the Executive, it would enable us to request additional fiscal powers and direct them through localised interventions.”
Murphy contends that Brexit creates “an enormous difficulty”, but that it is not insurmountable. “We did reach an agreement last February, which the DUP couldn’t sell to their own people and it subsequently unravelled. An agreement is possible, but in reaching such a point we recognise that there are huge difficulties,” he claims.
“We think that as difficult as the landscape is, it is much better that we have the opportunity to try to influence that as best we can. We do share an interest in the best possible outcome for the people that we represent here.”
That being said, Murphy fundamentally disagrees with the DUP’s pursuit of Brexit. Prior to the Executive collapse, Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster wrote a joint letter outlining many concerns relating to Brexit which were then developed into a paper at the North South Ministerial Council.
At the time, this, he suggests: “Was perhaps a recognition on behalf of the DUP, at that time, that it felt that [Brexit] was problematic and was bringing a series of problems, regardless of its view on Britain’s place in Europe.
“However, when the DUP went into the confidence and supply arrangement with the British Government, that flipped and it suddenly was no longer about seeking to address the problems. It almost seems like the ‘little Englanders’ in the DUP, whether that was their MP team or other people within the party, took over the running and adopted a very damaging position.”
Much commentary has focused on the manifestation of voice from each Dublin and London, in stark contrast to the absence of a Belfast voice. This analysis, Murphy indicates, fails to recognise that “there is no Belfast view, rather there are Belfast views”.
This, he maintains, does not mean that power-sharing cannot return. “A return to power sharing is desirable and as much as we will continue to work towards that, it doesn’t fix the fact that there isn’t a collective view. Under the current thinking of the DUP, there is not going to be a collective view. At the same time, it is much better that an Executive is functioning and that we try, as best as we can, to deal with the potential impact of Brexit.”
Murphy divulges that, when speaking privately with business community representatives, there is a palpable sense of concern in relation to Brexit. Although, while its voice is “probably increasing”, he emphasises: “I don’t think that either [the business community], the farming community or the agri-food industry have been vocal enough. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe people are hoping that something will turn up, that wise counsel will prevail and that this is a part of a negotiating game going on between Britain and the EU.”
In the current circumstances, he argues that more civic and business voices must be heard. “Whatever the British Government decides, we cannot be collateral damage. We weren’t in the consideration when the Tory Party decided to hold a referendum. Senior people, including their ministers, have displayed absolutely no understanding of the border issues, the constitutional issues, the Good Friday Agreement issues or the impact on business here, or perhaps no desire to.
“The solution that we have put forward – special designated status – would produce a very unique position here, in that we would have unfettered access to EU markets as well as British markets. We could have become an attractive place, even from a unionist perspective. But, [the DUP] seem to have closed their minds and allowed constitutional uncertainties to occupy their minds and denominate their thinking in terms of Brexit,” he states.
In the short-term, the Sinn Féin economic spokesman specifies that he wants to see the North protected from Brexit and spared from austerity. “The limited amount of money that [the DUP] managed to get out of the confidence and supply deal doesn’t begin to address the impact of austerity and won’t address the potential future impact. We are told by officials that the projected cuts into the future are much more difficult. Bear in mind, as you cut and cut, you begin to hit essential services.
“In that, we want a proper analysis of our economic needs. We want access to levers, such as fiscal powers, to make specific interventions and support the growth of the economy here. We want to do that on an all-island basis, for political and constitutional reasons, but also because the economy has benefitted from economic interaction across the border,” he concludes.