After the Assembly election in May and a brief honeymoon, the DUP-Sinn Féin coalition hasn’t enjoyed the smoothest of journeys on its return to the realities of day-to-day politics. The EU referendum result will continue to challenge both parties (who were, of course, on opposite sides of the debate) in the months and years to come. What will happen to the devolution of corporation tax if the UK does end up reducing its overall rate at the national level? Will Northern Ireland be able to attract the same levels of foreign direct investment outside of the EU? And, of course, will the post-Brexit border allow north-south (and east-west) trade to continue in its present, largely unrestricted, form?
These questions won’t be answered anytime soon, which is why the Executive must take the initiative wherever it can. Developing Northern Ireland’s infrastructure is a no-brainer – and an urgent imperative.
Over the last two months, however, the Executive’s lack of a long-term aviation strategy has been sorely exposed. Last month, it announced a rescue deal worth £9 million over the next three years to retain Belfast’s only direct transatlantic connection. United Airlines argued that its Boeing 757 could be used more profitably on domestic routes, and so the Executive stepped in with financial assistance to convince it to stay.
Last week Ryanair announced that it would be abolishing its service between City of Derry Airport and London Stansted, cutting a number of seasonal destinations, and reducing the frequency of connections to Liverpool to just two flights per week. The airport was already running at a loss of about £2.1 million each year, leaving its future in significant jeopardy. That was, however, until the Executive again stepped in to retain the almost-cut flights. In a funding package worth £7 million, Martin McGuinness pledged to protect what he called the “absolutely vital” links from City of Derry Airport and attract new ones.
In the short-term, the two rescue packages are perhaps reflections of the best available options. There are jobs and livelihoods at stake, and there would undoubtedly have been huge political uproar had the Executive not intervened.
However, the very fact that the Executive has had to haphazardly step in to protect air connections twice in the space of two months underlines just how badly it has failed to develop a long-term airport strategy for Northern Ireland. Throwing cash as sticking plasters just isn’t good enough, not least because this isn’t the first time such interventions have been made. “It’s amazing what you find down the back of the sofa,” observed the Green Party’s Steven Agnew. And unless we see a major change of strategy, we will likely need to find it all over again.
The blunt reality is that Northern Ireland does not need three commercial airports. We are a small region by both population and geography. If we were to start from scratch, we would develop a single airport, give it the long-term investment and infrastructural support it deserves, and benefit us all.
Not everyone enthusiastically supports such a radical idea. One the one hand, people (rightly) argue that we need competition. On the other, they (rightly) argue that we need to make sure that all parts of Northern Ireland have good connections, not just Belfast.
Both arguments, however, are pretty weak when we think about the bigger picture. Competition is indeed vital to give consumers the best deal by promoting efficiency within the airlines and airports, driving up the quality of services and pushing down prices. For this to happen, however, there needs to be a critical mass of customers to begin with. In a region with a population of 1.9 million, our three airports carried a combined total of 7.4 million passengers last year. Dublin Airport alone, meanwhile, carried 25 million passengers in 2015. As long as they struggle to even compete with each other, they will never be able to compete with an increasingly popular (state-owned) Dublin Airport.
One argument for retaining an airport in Derry is to avoid further unequal distribution of growth to promote investment in the west of the Bann as well as in Greater Belfast. Rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy and spreading growth is certainly needed. However, this certainly does not mean that Derry needs an airport at all costs. There are too many ironies here. When it comes to connectivity, as it stands there isn’t even a dual carriageway road connection for the full distance between Northern Ireland’s two largest cities. Londonderry Train Station is only 57 miles away from Belfast International Airport, but yet the latter has no rail connection in spite of a railway running beside it. These are shameful failures to date, but they can be fixed if the political will exits.
In short, the Executive does indeed need to step in to promote Northern Ireland’s domestic and international air connections. With the economic uncertainties and opportunities of Brexit, now, more than ever, is the time to finally develop a sensible airport strategy to give Northern Ireland’s economy the best possible footing to compete globally. ‘Stepping in’ cannot continue to be emergency rescue packages. Intervention needs to be about long-term, rational planning. That will require tough decisions. But if the Executive doesn’t take these decisions and develop a proper flight plan, its long-term hopes for the economy won’t take off.