Brandon Lewis is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and is MP for Great Yarmouth.
We are now in the pre-election period ahead of the next Assembly elections in May and the people of Northern Ireland should have the space to choose their local leaders, free of divisive and destabilising rhetoric.
In all the commentary during the run up to the election, we must not give in to overly simplistic narratives about the place or overlook the huge societal, technological and economic advances that have occurred over the last two decades.
The vision of the Belfast Agreement was for a Northern Ireland in which all communities can participate and work together. A place in which you have the opportunity to thrive no matter who you are, or where you come from.
The people of Northern Ireland need strong political leadership and stable, locally accountable representation that is able to address the issues that matter most to them.
We should not forget that Northern Ireland has come a long way and there is very real and exciting potential for an even better future. The Government has an ambitious vision for Northern Ireland; we want to see a stable, resilient Northern Ireland with a mature democracy and a truly integrated society.
A levelled-up Northern Ireland means one where economic opportunity is more evenly distributed and good public services are delivering the best possible outcomes for everyone. Which is why we are working with the Executive to level up the whole region. Recently, I signed the first ever City Deal for the Belfast region, which will unlock £1 billion of co-investment, deliver over 20 ambitious projects and create 20,000 jobs.
The Levelling Up Fund itself will provide £49 million for 11 projects that will boost opportunity and reinvigorate communities – the projects include establishing an electric vehicle-charging network across the country and redeveloping a derelict Ministry of Defence site into an urban community farm.
While it has long been one of the most disadvantaged parts of the UK, its economy initially being built around relatively low-skilled and low-wage jobs has entrenched poor productivity and lower standards of living. But that is changing. And fast.
Our United Kingdom is undoubtedly stronger for all that Northern Ireland brings to it. It has particular strengths in its digital economy – artificial intelligence, advanced engineering and manufacturing. Just last month, the Belfast-based medical technology company, Axial 3D, helped save the life of a little girl in Southampton after surgeons were able to practice on a 3D model of her heart.
There are over 100 cyber security firms in Northern Ireland employing approximately 2300 people. It is home to nearly five per cent of the UK’s cyber security work force. And the Government is committed to having 5000 cyber professionals working in Northern Ireland by 2030. Fintech is another growing sector, with Northern Ireland previously ranked as the third global FinTech location for the future and Belfast consistently ranked in the Top 25 Tech Cities in the world, and second in the UK after London.
We have also seen exceptional growth in recent years in the creative industries. It now contributes over £1 billion to the local economy. As well as Game of Thrones, global companies like Universal Pictures and Disney have chosen Northern Ireland as the location for recent productions. Netflix is shooting a new film at Belfast Harbour Studios, which is set to generate local investment of around £30million and 500 jobs.
In the context of robust political debate on topical issues, it is easy to lose sight of the wider advances that Northern Ireland continues to make. It is right at the cutting edge of cyber security and defence.
Last week, I visited Thales in Belfast. They are responsible for manufacturing the NLAW anti-tank missiles that the Government has been sending to Ukrainian forces as part of our package of lethal aid to support those on the front line fighting against the bloody Russian invasion.
This Government has invested a great deal in Northern Ireland, reflecting our scale of ambition and belief in its exciting future. Since I became Secretary of State, we have made the most significant investment in Northern Ireland for a generation. The block grant for the Executive has increased to its highest level since devolution in 1998. We will now deliver a record £15 billion per year to be spent on public services, boost growth and support families with the cost of living.
This is on top of the £3.5 billion we are providing through the New Deal for Northern Ireland, City Deals, Peace Plus and the New Decade, New Approach financial package. Together these funds will be deployed to help encourage further private investment in NI and build the foundations of its future economic model.
Of course, we are not under the illusion that everything is perfect. Northern Ireland still faces significant economic and societal challenges. The Foreign Secretary and I are seeking to negotiate substantial changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol and we have been clear that nothing is off the table in our pursuit of solutions to the outstanding issues with its operation.
And we cannot ignore the legacy of the past, which continues to haunt Northern Ireland’s present. I am committed to bringing forward legislation that will deliver on our commitment to our veterans, deliver more information to victims and survivors about what happened to their loved ones and give wider Northern Ireland society the best chance to look forward as one, rather than continually back at its divisive history.
As we look ahead to the election and beyond, we must do so in the context of embracing all that Northern Ireland has to offer and a positive, proactive and optimistic vision for its future. Northern Ireland is undoubtedly stronger for being part of the United Kingdom, but the United Kingdom is more innovative, technologically advanced, creative and secure because Northern Ireland is a part of our Union.