January 12, 2007

Can we become talented and tolerant?

People, not politicians or economists, make societies harmonious and prosperous places. When those politicians and economists talk about the importance of ‘human capital’, what they mean is highly-skilled, educated and socially competent people. When they talk about the importance of ‘social capital’, they mean good friends, neighbours and communities.

Nobody needs to understand the arcane language of globalised capitalism to know that a good education, a well-paid, rewarding job, a secure and loving family, loyal friends, tolerant and trustworthy neighbours, freedom of speech and expression, and a safe and peaceful environment are among the best ingredients for a happy and fulfilling life. A society that can provide most of these things is as near to perfection as we’re going to get on this earth.

Northern Ireland is pretty far down the perfection league table. In particular, we’re in the remedial class when it comes to learning to trust our neighbours. But at least we have stopped fighting and killing each other, have an economy that’s in better shape than for many a long year, and are turning out lots of bright and well-educated young people.

According to the expert on the subject, Professor Bob Osborne, around 30% of these talented young people (twice as many Protestants as Catholics) currently leave Northern Ireland to study in Britain as soon as they leave school, and very few come back. And while we continue to squabble about the ancient shibboleths of identity politics, instead of striving to make the province a harmonious and rewarding place to live, they won’t come back. If the Executive and Assembly eventually get up and going, they have to start work fast on planning the kind of attractive society that might one day tempt those high achieving young people into returning. Because experience in other successful regions and countries shows that this is a long-term task.

If we want lessons in how to do this, we could do worse than look to our neighbours across the border. For although the Celtic Tiger has been in full roar for the past decade or so, some of its most important foundations go back over 40 years to a largely forgotten OECD report, Investment in Education. This highlighted the waste of human talent caused by a deeply unfair and hugely under-resourced secondary education system, and kick-started a reform process which led, by the mid 1990s, to the young Irish becoming one of the most highly educated groups of their age in Europe – with consequences for their economy that are now the stuff of international legend.

In a recent address to all-island business leaders¹, leading Irish economist John Fitzgerald said the importance of such highly educated ‘human capital’ in fuelling economic growth was often underestimated. He said his research showed that a key ingredient of the Celtic Tiger economy had been “the experience obtained outside Ireland by a high proportion of the native population – this is particularly true for those with third level education.”

He emphasised how vital it was for Northern Ireland to attract back large numbers of its own highly educated emigrants, stressing that it was only by “harnessing this resource” that it could hope to develop a really vibrant private sector. But can this be done, even in the long term? The influential US economist Richard Florida believes that the people he calls the “creative class” – the scientists, engineers, technologists, artists, designers, financiers – are a key economic resource which is highly mobile. These are the people who will come up with “next generation products and business processes” that will bring real prosperity to a region.

He believes such crucial people gravitate towards regions with “the three Ts: technology, talent and tolerance”. He claims to be able to measure these through what he calls a ‘Creativity Index’. The tolerance part requires, among other things, openness to gays and foreigners, and high levels of racial integration. Three years ago he compared 14 European countries to the US in this regard, and found that “Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands had Creativity Index scores that closely matched that of the United States, and Ireland is gaining quickly.”²

And Northern Ireland? We’re not even at the starting line.

Andy Pollak

¹ Neighbours or Cousins? The two Irish economies, speech delivered at the All Island Leadership Summit, Kildare, 3 October 2006.

² Breakthrough Ideas for 2004: The Harvard Business Review List, February 2004