Ulster few enjoy a golden age: The sweet life goes on in North Down despite everything. Ian MacKinnon asks how they do it

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'RECESSION? What recession?' As a response it wasn't surprising, coming from the bar of a yacht club with royal patronage. The view through the picture window was of boats bobbing on their moorings and flags gently fluttering in the lunchtime breeze.

What may surprise outsiders is that this is Northern Ireland. The drinkers in the bar of the Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club at Cultra are members of the North Down Set, living in the province's most exclusive area. Their common theme is gold: the Gold Coast, Golden Mile, Golden Crescent, Golden Triangle.

Here, behind high hedges and winding driveways shaded by chestnut trees, the bourgeoisie hang their hats. 'His and hers' Jaguars and Mercedes sports cars sit one behind another. Luxury mansions, many with their own tennis courts and swimming pools, sit in this leafy wonderland untouched by the ravages of economic downturn. Here is an elite that has largely escaped the slump in the rest of the United Kingdom.

As the man at Belfast's Porsche dealership put it: 'People think of Northern Ireland as a black hole with bombings. They don't realise that people here can have a rather nice life.'

This 'rather nice life' is due to the large amounts of spare cash people have in their pockets because houses cost a fraction of the equivalent elsewhere in the UK. Take Derek Coates, sitting by the bowling green of the Crawfordsburn Country Club. 'You can still buy a semi-detached first home for pounds 28,000 here,' he says. 'It would cost pounds 60,000 at least in England. In Crawfordsburn village a regular bungalow would be pounds 58,000, but anywhere else it would be over pounds 100,000.'

Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that when house prices elsewhere started to go through the roof, they progressed gently in Northern Ireland. 'When house prices start to rise repeatedly, you get a speculative effect,' said Graham Gudgin, director of the Northern Ireland Economic Research Council. 'People borrow more money than they can afford merely because they see gains to be made greater than their income. It never happened here.'

The result is the lowest cost of living in the UK, around 20 per cent below the national average. Even when house prices are removed from the equation and the greater expense of basics is taken into consideration, those at the top are still better off. Luxuries such as the golf club and school fees are cheaper.

Buoyant consumer spending drew leading high street names into Northern Ireland and kept stores at the top of turnover league tables. 'There is simply more disposable income here,' said Alan Espey, owner of a department store in Newtownards, Co Down. 'We have not suffered from the recession at all.'

Even manufacturing has fared well. The historical need to export two thirds of everything produced means that Northern Ireland industry has long spread its risks. Output has shown virtually no fall and average growth almost matches the rest of the UK over the past decade, despite the boom that never came. The vast numbers employed in the public sector - at 40 per cent of the workforce, twice that of the rest of the UK - and the meagre pay rises they receive, served as a drag on the economy during the boom years.

This has helped to make the province all but recession- proof. The Government provides about pounds 6bn in grants annually, 50 per cent more per head than elsewhere in the kingdom. Inevitably a sizeable chunk of that is spent on countering terrorism, or paying for the after-effects. But even that can be good for business, whether for lawyers involved in trials, or tradesman rebuilding bombed towns. 'The glaziers and builders have done rather nicely out of the bomb in Newtownards just recently,' said Mr Espey.

Unemployment, however, remains stubbornly high. With a rate of around 14 per cent, it is the worst region in the UK. At the yacht club, Jill Nelson concedes: 'There is a wide gulf between the haves, who are in work, and have-nots. It shows up particularly in this area.'

One crude indicator is the number of roads marked 'private'. So common is the warning that newer signs opt for 'strictly private'. In this Belfast commuter belt bounded by Hollywood, Cultra, Craigavad, Helen's Bay, Crawfordsburn and Bangor, the North Down Set disposes of its disposable income. The wealthiest - top civil servants, judges, doctors, barristers and business people - congregate around the most exclusive watering holes: the Elysium health club (also known as the Asylum), charging central London prices, the Royal Ulster Yacht Club, and the Royal Belfast Golf Club, at the end of one of those private roads. For the slightly less charmed there are another five golf clubs and four other yacht clubs.

Even the 'Troubles' can't dampen enthusiasm. Arguments, well rehearsed, point to crime surveys showing Northern Ireland with the lowest crime rate in the industrialised world after Japan, even after terrorism is taken into account. In any case, violence rarely intrudes on this wealthy idyll.

As Paul Megarity, a founder member of North Down Conservative Association, put it: 'I think it's a polite two-fingered gesture to the Troubles. I'm sure that if, heaven forbid, the clubhouse of the Royal Belfast was blown up, they would still make it to the first tee on Saturday morning.'

(Photograph omitted)

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