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Dickson Delivers Economy Speech at the Alliance Party Conference

"The past year has been devastating for local businesses and employees. Restrictions necessary to cut infections have put severe pressures on businesses, and many are wondering how they can come out of this.

Northern Ireland has spent unimaginable sums of money to provide support for such businesses, individuals and other organisations. Although this is very welcome, unfortunately one year on, there are many, particularly the self-employed, left out. There are also large exceptionally hard hit sectors without specific support.

Alliance will continue to press Ministers to provide the support needed to our economy, not only now, but coming out of this crisis, helping businesses rebuild, and people to retrain and meet the skills needs of the future.

There is also the not so small matter of Brexit, a topic which has been somewhat relegated from the front pages by Covid. The challenges that we face in this regard are considerable. The Protocol is not at all what we wanted, or anyone wanted for that matter, but it is a reality and we must work with it to make trade flow as easy as possible.

Alliance, and particularly our MP Stephen Farry have been at the forefront of this, offering practical and constructive contributions solve problems rather that ignore the reality.

So Northern Ireland is at a pivot point in history. In adjusting to the structural changes that the Covid-19 Pandemic and Brexit has brought, but the existential threat of the climate emergency, we have a chance for change to build a better future for all.

We should not seek to simply rewind to March 2020. The reality is that for so many in our society our economy did not work for them.

We must tackle the structural issues in our economy to deliver a system that works for everyone. This includes unemployment, underemployment, discrimination, underachievement, poor pay and insecure employment. There is also the ever present issue of inadequate infrastructure especially in the West. This will require joined up government action, serious funding commitments, and crucially an Executive-wide recovery strategy, which Alliance has been pressing for since last year.

Our education system must be supportive from the very beginning of schooling, and be integrated with Further Education and Higher Education policy and careers services, to help break the cycle of underachievement, promote lifelong learning and ensure that our people have the skills needed for the future.

Our social security system needs to be supportive and flexible. Not punitive and mean. This includes Statutory Sick Pay, which as we have seen over the last year, is paltry in comparison to other countries, and means the most vulnerable in our society cannot afford to self-isolate or take time to recover from illness.

But although we face structural challenges there are great opportunities for Northern Ireland too.

The Green Industrial Revolution, means that high tech well paid jobs could very much be a part of Northern Ireland’s recovery. And we believe that green economy to be integrated into recovery plans and properly funded, not simply window dressing, or stapled to the end.

Furthermore, although the Protocol is far from what we would have wanted for Northern Ireland, we are a practical party, and although others will want to deflect blame for Brexit, or boycott, we know the reality is that we need to work with what we have.

Northern Ireland now has a competitive advantage in regards to market access to the UK and EU, that no other place in the world has. We need to take full advantage of this, as it could be a way to sell Northern Ireland to businesses all over the world and bring new and vital investment.

So in closing, we face serious economic head winds in Northern Ireland, on top of structural issues that have existed for decades. But just like countries across the world built a new postwar consensus, we want to work to build a new post-Covid consensus. To do all we can to work towards a prosperous, inclusive and sustainable economy in Northern Ireland that works for everyone."

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