In Northern Ireland there is a visible dearth of public interest in economic matters. There are economists working in Northern Ireland – in the universities, in the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI), and in the banks. But the level of public discourse around economics is close to zero.
This is painfully obvious amongst the political class, where economics is possibly the least debated issue. Policing and Justice, parades, education, culture, even sport, receive more attention amongst the politicians, the media, and the general public. Economics is consigned to the background, like oil in a car – essential, but nobody really thinks about it between services.
The parties pay lip service to economic policy. The DUP claim to have prioritised infrastructural development and investment in skills – but these are just words. The UUP parrot the same words, while claiming to have "a vision of a flourishing regional economy". Yet neither of these two parties either has an economic strategy, or any real interest in the area – their 'news releases' prioritise everything except economics.
On the nationalist side the picture is not much better. The SDLP has, at least, published a paper giving its policy priorities in the crisis period. It is long on policy and short on economics, but at least it demonstrates the beginning of an interest in how money is raised and spent in the public sector. The private sector, however, is largely ignored. Sinn Féin, it hardly needs to be said, has almost no economic policy beyond slogans and a dated statist mentality.
So much for the politicians. But what about the commentariat? In most countries the economy, public and private, is the subject of fierce debate amongst think-tanks, academics, journalists and bloggers. There is usually a healthy exchange of ideas and people between research bodies and government, and every aspect of the economy is analysed and argued over.
But not in Northern Ireland.
The research bodies, think-tanks, journalists and bloggers are fixated exclusively on politics. There is almost no debate about economics. The economy is viewed by many as an external environment – it is governed by people and laws that are outside Northern Ireland, and the only input that Northern Ireland has is as a consumer. The 'quangocracy' that absorbs so much of Northern Ireland's educated workforce is focussed on governance, on social matters, on community development and on 'equality' – and almost never on issues of economic interest.
The few bodies that have an economic remit are too often simply vehicles for political patronage, and are often grossly over-staffed and under-effective. They can overlap, they can over-staff, they can under-perform – and no-one really seems to care.
At the individual level, Northern Ireland has numerous political commentators – of whom blogs are one visible sign. But there is no single economic blog concerning Northern Ireland.
In the south there are excellent economics blogs; Ronan Lyons, David McWilliams, the Irish Economy, True Economics, the economics section on politics.ie, Turbulence Ahead and others. In the north, most blogs don't even include an 'economics' tag!
Does it matter?
As long as Northern Ireland is prepared to remain a dependent state with no control over its own affairs, then it probably matters little. If 'economics' in Northern Ireland is simply the distribution of London's largesse, rather than the creation of wealth, then political policies are probably more important. But if Northern Ireland ever wants to rise out of its infantile state and actually play a full and productive part in the affairs of the world, economics does matter.
The ability to understand how goods and services can best be produced, distributed and consumed, while maximising the efficiency of the use of scarce resources, is essential to any society that plays an active part in the modern world. A society that doesn't care how money is made because it receives a 'block grant' is like a child waiting for its parent to feed it. The lack of interest shown towards enterprise and wealth creation in Northern Ireland borders on the irresponsible. The local economy depends largely on the public sector, funded by taxes raised largely in London and the south of England – and while this is seen by unionists as evidence of the 'family spirit' of the UK, few families appreciate having to support indolent relatives ad infinitum. The time will surely come when the hard-working members of the family start to insist that the lazy members go and get jobs.
Unionists – at least – should care about this. If they wish to "promote the freedom and prosperity of all individuals in a stable and growing economy" (UUP), or "believe in a stable and prosperous future for the Province" (DUP), then they should want it to have a dynamic economy. Ignoring economic debate or analysis is no way to proceed. Nor is blaming the IRA's campaign, which has been over for half a generation – compare Germany, Japan or Korea, and see how fast they bounced back from utter devastation.
Yet it seems that the dependency mentality has become so deeply engrained in Northern Ireland that few people even show any interest in escaping from it. Until they do, Northern Ireland will sink further into economic helplessness, lacking even the intellectual tools necessary to plan its escape. As well as being a 'failed political entity', it is clear that Northern Ireland is a failed economic entity. The sooner its sorry existence is terminated the better for all of its people.