Alliance Conference 2009: Joanne Stuart

Joanne Stuart, Chair of the Institute of Directors (IoD), Northern Ireland, was guest speaker at the Alliance Party Conference dinner at the Dunadry Hotel, Templepatrick.

Stuart began by saying that having spent much of the past 16 years in England and Dublin, if someone had told her then that she’d be speaking at an Alliance Party dinner on the topic of the economy, she wouldn’t believe it. But for her, that was an indication of how much has changed, where Northern Ireland is a place for people to get involved, in politics, the social economy, or business — and to work together, to make a difference.

She praised the conference for being open to internal dissent and external critique, arguing, discussing and voting on motions, all which she remarked that the public mightn’t think goes on in politics. Stewart added that at one point, she thought she was at a business conference, because of the issues that were debated.

Stuart said that it was refreshing to hear “the real issues being debated”, in particular, the rebuilding of the Northern Ireland economy, which is at the heart of the IoD’s “1.7 Challenge”.

She said that she enjoyed the session on the social economy, providing her, in the private sector, food for thought.

Also, the debate on the segregation of Northern Ireland’s education system was “personally important” to her: “Our children are the foundation of our shared future.”

Stuart described her organisation’s “1.7 Challenge”, with the objective of having Northern Ireland as a role model for post-conflict, regional economic development: a pro-business environment, efficient public sector services, world-class education skills, and a dynamic and rapidly expanding private sector.

A year since this initiative, she described how the current economic climate has been “turned on its head”, with stark increases in firm redundancies and unemployment. Stuart said that it was important not to dehumanise the human suffering, but rather “preserve people’s dignity in this downturn”.

Discussing the high reliance on the public sector in Northern Ireland, she said that if we do not address this imbalance, then it will be more difficult to “come out the other side” of the current economic situation.

Stuart cited reports that over 75% of Northern Ireland’s economic activity is reliance on public spending, adding that this is not sustainable. Redress is not slashing public services, but to grow the economy by unleashing entrepreneurial skills and creating a vibrant, job-creating, wealth-generating private sector.

At the level of the British Government, Stuart said that with all the public spending to shore up the financial system, this debt will need to be repaid and forecast that it would not be long before there would be cuts in other public spending. She said, “We need to seriously rethink our decision on how we spend the money we do have, to maximise the impact on the local economy.”

She used an analogy of a brewery where management was frustrated by an established distribution practice, and only after the historic reasons for the practice was discovered did it become obvious how obsolete the practice was and positive change quickly followed. Stuart said that this illustrates how important it is to challenge belief systems and assumptions, and the need to question routine policy, which applies to government as much as it does for business.

Stuart informed the audience that IoD has called upon the Northern Ireland Executive to appoint a champion to ensure that the economy is the number one priority, and that all forthcoming policies should be “economy-proofed” across all Executive Departments, to ensure they add to a growing local economy.

She questioned why the Executive takes populist decisions that cost much money that could be used more effectively, citing revenue lost via the postponement of water charges, the introduction of free prescriptions, the £150 cash fuel poverty payments.

While underlining the importance of challenging officials, Stuart said that it was also worth highlighting positive actions: new initiatives on entrepreneurship, investigating how to retain apprenticeships and employed training, finding ways to support businesses during this downturn via export markets, improving the efficiency of the planning system.

She said that it is important to challenge your own organisation, describing this process within the IoD, which included the introduction of an online social network site for its members and open to the wider business community, “NI Crunch Talk”.

Her motto was, “Challenging how we do things has to become part of our makeup.”

Stuart said that if Northern Ireland is to achieve its full potential, then business and government must work in partnership. She then applied an analogy with the victorious Irish rugby team.

She made reference to how recent tragic events were answered by leadership across the political spectrum, demonstrating unity of purpose. Stuart then mooted that if we could focus that unity of purpose on delivering on the Programme for Government — the economy as the number one priority — then we can create the modern and vibrant society that we all want.

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