Protestants haunted by British withdrawal: With talks on the future of Ulster resuming today, David McKittrick tests the mood of Belfast's business community

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The Independent Online
'WHAT BUSINESS people are scared of,' a senior figure in the Belfast financial world said, 'is a British withdrawal - if Britain pulled out in disgust and lack of patience with us.

'Many business people would say it's a miracle it hasn't already happened - I've heard that so many, many times. There's a very clear feeling that our efforts have helped to keep this place going. But that is built, without any shadow of doubt, on an enormous British government subvention.'

Conversations with more than a dozen senior business figures in the Protestant community show that they share many of the general preoccupations and fears of unionism.

But there is no single view within that business world, beyond a fairly general feeling of goodwill towards the talks.

One of the most striking features of the business community is the way its members have insulated themselves from many of the effects of the troubles. The quality of middle-class life in Northern Ireland is particularly high, with businessmen in general living far from the violence.

One senior economist said: 'There are people I meet who speak of Northern Ireland as a paradise. They live well, their children go to fine grammar schools and there are hardly any drugs around. They play their golf and they sail their boats and they drink their wine and they abstract out of it.'

The business classes have shied away, not only from the violence, but from politics as well. Until the late 1960s they were immersed in unionist politics, but when the troubles began, almost to a person they abandoned politics and baled out. Today, they have only limited political influence, many of them privately speaking of unionist politicians with contempt.

Critics would say that their own record has been inglorious: they first of all presided over a sectarian system and then later washed their hands of it. This is not, of course, their own perspective.

A prominent businessman, who was once involved in politics, said: 'We're always being pushed for more, as though we've got the chest of gold and we have to give it away a bit at a time. That drives Protestants absolutely mad because they don't see themselves as bigots en masse.

'When middle-class Protestants get together around the dinner table and there's nobody except Prods there, they will ask: what are we going to be asked to swallow next - what's the next thing going to bloody well be?

'They don't see themselves as guilty men. They see themselves as misunderstood, as people who have very badly represented their own case. They don't see themselves as people who are to be punished and if there's any suggestion of that kind of thing from these talks, the whole thing could come totally off the rails.'

A unionist representative involved in the talks said he was receiving two distinct messages from the business community: 'One signal is: 'Get in there and stay with it and make sure you're not the first to walk away'. But the other is: 'For god's sake, whatever you do, don't sell us out'.'

There is another strand of opinion, which would shed few tears if the talks did not work. This argument, which is advanced by quite a few, is that the current system of direct rule, with its appearance of stability and its generous subsidies, works pretty well as far as business is concerned.

The direct rule apparatus consists of a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a number of junior ministers and a reasonably compact Northern Ireland Office, together with a separate Northern Ireland civil service. This system offers the Belfast business community unparalleled access to the levers of power. The system has had the useful effect of depoliticising, and largely removing from the political arena, areas - such as housing - which once aroused intense controversy but are now regarded as equitably run. There is certainly a fear that any new, devolved administration could reopen many old sores.

Those who hold such views tend towards the fatalistic view that things cannot be expected to get a great deal better. The alternative school of thought, which includes some in the upper echelons of business and finance, holds that real improvement is possible and that the talks could bring substantial progress.

One business leader said: 'A lot of people aren't really looking at devolution as offering great possibilities, but I think that if we can get an agreed set of devolved institutions, then the potential for mobilising the latent energies are enormous. It could reflect talent right across the board, while if the talks collapsed, it would be a dreadful admission of failure and inadequacy.'

In recent years, the northern business community has paid increasing attention to north-south trade and there have been important cross-border initiatives recently from the local CBI and from the banking industry. While unionists are traditionally insistent that such moves have no political implications, this trend may well have a long-term effect.

To be acceptable to nationalists, the talks will have to result in a significant north-south linkage, plus a sharing of power between Protestants and Catholics. Would such arrangements be acceptable to the Protestant business community? The answer, from almost every quarter, is yes. A number have reservations, but most say that they, and the people they associate with, now accept that the structure of any agreement will be along such lines.

One said: 'Some of the old types still have a lot of hang-ups, but the newer generation recognises the shift of power that has occurred. There's now a much more equitable society and they have come to terms with that.'

Two other sources said they believed the business class was ready to accept far more than the unionist negotiators would ever accept.

But there were warnings that too radical a settlement could drive businessmen back to traditional unionism: 'If it's constitutional adventurism,' one said, 'they will see that as highly destabilising and something that's only going to increase mayhem and uncertainty. They would prefer something quieter, low-key.'

The business world, like the population in general, regards the talks with varying measures of hope, apprehension and cynicism. In general, expectations are low, for there have been so many false dawns in the past.

The former unionist politician had one observation which crystallised the views of many business people. 'There's a view about, it's very well rehearsed, that both sides here have taken so much hammering that, at the end of the day, you've only got yourselves. The rest of the world doesn't give a damn about you and, at the end of the day, the only way forward is to get on with your neighbour and get on and do the bloody thing.'

Leading article, page 24

(Photograph omitted)

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