‘The Troubles’ still loom over Northern Ireland

Stephen Beard Apr 25, 2012

Tess Vigeland: This month’s 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s doomed voyage is, of course, also a business opportunity. And that’s certainly the case in the city where the ship was built. Belfast, in Northern Ireland, just opened a multi-million-dollar exhibition about the ocean line — part of a long hard slog to rebuild the economy of the British province. For 30 years, Northern Ireland was torn apart by “The Troubles,” a bloody struggle over whether to stay British or become part of a united Ireland.

Our European bureau chief Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: Several thousand people died here during violence of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s . And as the news reports back then made clear: business also suffered.

Newsreel: News at 9 o’clock. Two business premises have been extensively damaged in overnight firebomb attacks.

This was often a daily occurrence. After five of his properties were burned to the ground in the early ’90s, this shopkeeper voiced his anger and despair.

Shopkeeper: I don’t think I can hack it anymore. I put 25 years work into this and I built it up to eight shops. And now I’ve got three left. So can you tell me: Is that progress? Because I can’t see it.

Throughout The Troubles, business stagnated here. The British government had to pour in taxpayers’ cash to keep the province afloat. But today — more than a decade after the peace agreement — the business climate has been transformed.

Jeremy Fitch: It’s a like a big, dark cloud has lifted over Northern Ireland and the sense of optimism that exists here now has changed the economic landscape considerably.

Jeremy Fitch runs Invest Northern Ireland, the government body which promotes business. It can boast an impressive list of American companies who’ve set up here.

Fitch: The All State Corporation has about 2,000 people in Northern Ireland, Liberty Mutual has an IT center here, Citigroup has…

Microsoft, Oracle, the NYSE. Dozens of foreign corporations in finance, software and biotech. Fitch says they have set up shop here because it’s safe, it’s cheap, there’s an eager, well-trained workforce, and yes and there are government susbsidies too.

Fitch: Very often the offer of financial incentive gets us that first meeting that allows us to put forward the Northern Ireland proposition to international investors.

The drive is paying off. Belfast is even developing its own film industry. HBO’s hit show “Game of Thrones” is shot here. And the city is also trying to turn itself into a major tourist destination — with its brand new Titanic museum. Nigel Smyth is the head of Northern Ireland’s main business group.

Nigel Smyth: Tourism sector is expected to double — to be a billion pound industry within the next 10 years. So Northern Ireland has a lot going for it.

But it has a long way to go. The province still depends heavily on taxpapers support. Michael Smyth is head of economics at the University of Ulster.

Michael Smyth: We look down our noses at Greece, who have a deficit of 14 or 15 percent of GDP, Northern Ireland has a deficit of 27 percent of GDP every single year.

And he says every single year, the province is bailed out by the British government. Given the virtual bankruptcy of the Irish government in Dublin, he doesn’t think a United Ireland is likely anytime soon.

Smyth: I cannot see a government in Dublin wanting to take on Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland would have to become much more economically developed.

A decade and a half after The Troubles came to an end, they still cast a long shadow over the economy of Northern Ireland.

In Belfast, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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