Economy scarred by Troubles begins to show dividends

A year of peace: Tourism is early beneficiary as growing confidence puts Ulster on the brink of expansion
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Ireland Correspondent

A year after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, the Northern Ireland economy seems on the brink of a period of expansion as the benefits of peace feed through the system.

Apart from tourism, no huge financial peace dividend has appeared in the past 12 months. There are clear indicators, however, of growing interest among potential investors and of increased business confidence.

One example of this is the arrival of the British supermarket giants Sainsbury and Tesco, both of which are now moving in to open stores in the wake of the ceasefires.

The Government and local analysts hope that they will be joined by large manufacturing concerns which in the past were frightened off by the violence. It is also hoped that local entrepreneurs, released from the worry of having their businesses blown up, will turn their minds to expansion. But the economy is only gradually being affected by the peace.

The central question lies in how to transform an economy deeply scarred by the Troubles into one that can compete successfully with the rest of Europe and other regions of the United Kingdom. It currently survives on huge subsidies from Britain and a bloated public sector, but even so it has particularly high unemployment and a number of blackspots where jobs are pretty much a rarity.

On the credit side, the experts say the economy has performed surprisingly well even against the background of the troubles. Battle-hardened firms which weathered so much will, they say, now come into their own.

A number of areas of potential growth are opening up. Most immediately, tourists have already been flocking in, with holiday visitors up by more than 50 per cent. This summer French, German and American accents could be heard at the Giant's Causeway. Some of this influx is due to post- troubles curiosity, but the scenic attractions augur well for the future of the tourist trade. One short-term problem will be to build enough hotels to replace the dozens destroyed in bomb blasts.

The prospects for more inward investment are immeasurably brighter. In the United States, in particular, the Clinton administration is making determined efforts to coax businesses to invest in Northern Ireland. Visits by potential investors are up by nearly 40 per cent.

The thousands of visitors from the Republic, who never dared venture north until now, are a strong indicator of the potential for increased cross-border activity and business and commercial organisations are placing great emphasis on the increased opportunities.

However, thoughtful observers make the point that more will be needed if Ulster is to reach its full potential. The ceasefires have brought peace, but genuine stability will not be achieved until they are underpinned by a political settlement.

Doug Riley, head of British Telecom in Northern Ireland and chairman of the local Confederation of British Industry, said: "I am strongly of the view that if there is no political movement we will not achieve the success that we deserve on the economic front. People will hold back until we have in place the frameworks and structures which all can recognise, respect and work with."

But such sentiments have proved controversial. The fact that business figures have been urging political dialogue and movement towards a settlement, and encouraging cross-border activity, has drawn angry reaction from loyalist politicians.

The Democratic Unionist MP Peter Robinson, for example, attacked commercial figures as "a band of business bloodsuckers, moneyed muck-worms and government lickspittles".

There is still much uncertainty: the ceasefires might not last and if they do jobs in the security sector will be lost. But most of those concerned seem to be operating on the assumption that peace is probably here to stay and that the economy's prospects are bright.