Ostriches as innovators in Northern Ireland

Ostriches are wrongly famed for sticking their heads in the sand. Such behaviour has been popularly but falsely attributed to the birds since Ancient Rome. It explains the evocative metaphor for people who pretend that reality can be ignored. Even those sober economists who work in behavioural finance have adopted the term “ostrich effect” to describe when people ignore risky financial situations by pretending that they don’t exist.

Northern Ireland is a place where many people stick their heads in the sand. Not least among them is the region’s political and business elite. Its members pay lip service to the need for an innovative, knowledge based future. But they are at a loss as to what this means or how it will be achieved. More importantly, they fail to consider how the region’s political system is a very real obstacle to innovation.

The Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service, Dr. Malcolm McKibbin, spoke recently at a conference on innovation in Northern Ireland, organised by NESTA, a UK-wide think tank. He said politicians were urging civil servants to press forward with delivery of projects that would encourage job creation and economic growth. The basis for this pressure, he said, was because the electorate will judge politicians on said delivery. That might be the case in Stockholm or Vancouver. It is not so in Northern Ireland.

The political system is comprised of tribal blocks, both representing closed ideologies. Neither side is receptive to fresh ideas; parties balk at ideas that challenge or undermine the section of the community they represent. Speaking at the same event, a Board Member of Invest NI, the region’s economic development agency, said that innovation is based on curiosity. You would be hard pressed to find two less curious tribes than Ulster’s Unionists and Nationalists.

Northern Ireland’s political and business elite specialises in a circular conversation. Dissent is not especially welcome, and outside influences are often distrusted. There are always one and a half eyes on identity politics. Symbolism usually trumps substance. One prominent business man voiced the frustration of many when he launched a scathing attack on the dysfunction of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Politicians today announced the latest in a series of proposals to tackle division in Northern Ireland. Some estimates put the cost of duplicating services such as schools and leisure centres in neighbouring communities at £1.5bn. That is more than a tenth of Northern Ireland’s budget.

Among the proposals are work placements for 10,000 unemployed young people and a pledge to remove so-called “peace walls” by 2023. Nursery school children are to get a cross-community buddy. Gone are the days of a strategy to deal with division; all that is left are piecemeal and uncoordinated proposals.

Yet, when first mooted two weeks ago, the argument was not about the policies’ lack of ambition. It was, instead, about the ugly development process. Responding to displeased ministerial colleagues, frustrated at their exclusion, one Sinn Fein minister blurted out, “So what?”

A “shared future”, the supposed end goal of the original push to develop a strategy for reconciliation, was always woolly. In a place like Northern Ireland, it meant all things to all people. Most dangerously of all, it had become the height of ambition for the region. Other places take living together for granted and focus on more important things.

Part of the push for a comprehensive strategy was to deal effectively with the most contentious issues. Flags, parades and the legacy of the past stir up hardened opinions. No agreement has so far been possible. Hopes and expectations for a solution fall now on a working party, with a December deadline for agreement.

Few people doubt the need for economic “rebalancing” in Northern Ireland. Innovation has been identified as a way to power the growth of the region’s tiny private sector, but less than a third of companies currently undertake any R&D activity.

It is too easy to say that innovation and creativity will be economic saviours. Behind the platitudes there needs to be a robust and realistic framework for how innovation can spur economic growth. An honest debate about the obstacles to economic change in Northern Ireland is urgently needed. The political system must be top of the list.

At a time when other regions of the world are focused on how to engender economic growth, Northern Ireland is once again facing a summer of uncertainty. Unproductive navel gazing is indicative of the region’s failure to grasp that it has to work for a future that is prosperous and innovative. Events such as the NESTA roadshow, a masterclass in smug introspection, hinder rather than help.

The political system is neither mature nor sophisticated enough to deal with a sustained challenge brought about by flags, parades or the past. The ostriches might well do a better job.

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