Leading article: A sign of rising confidence

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Political progress in Northern Ireland has tended to be fitful and slow. The decision by Sinn Fein last weekend to recognise the police was a significant step. But it does not mean that agreement on power-sharing is just around the corner. There will be more opportunities for brinkmanship on either side.

There is, though, far more to progress in Northern Ireland than the halting advances taking place at the political level, and this is what is happening in the economy and at the grass roots. Northern Ireland as a whole recorded a faster rise in house prices last year than any other part of the United Kingdom.

Towns and districts whose names were once synonymous with the Troubles - such as Newry and the Belfast district of Shankill - are now some of the hottest of housing hot spots. Prices in Newry rose on average last year by more than 50 per cent. Owners of terraced houses in the mainly Protestant Shankill Road saw their value almost double.

An especially heartening development is that so many of the eager buyers are local people, including some who left during the Troubles. Demand for housing far outstrips supply, and the trend is towards buying over renting. The revival of the neighbouring, predominantly Catholic, Falls Road preceded that of the Shankill and continues apace. This double revival accelerates the renaissance of Belfast and of the province as a whole.

There is a downside, of course. The growth in house prices has far outstripped wage rises. Reasonably sized houses risk becoming too expensive for local families. Speculators are moving in, and higher prices translate into higher rents. Now that the gap between prices in Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK has narrowed, it will also be harder for those who would like to move back to do so.

But far more about Northern Ireland's housing boom is positive. If any one indicator is evidence of rising confidence overall, it is surely the trend in property prices. And growth is expected to continue, though perhaps not at the speed of 2006. The economy, especially around Belfast, is flourishing, with growth fostered by generous public investment and an influx of multinationals. At a time when the pace of political development still seems disappointingly sluggish, it must be hoped that a revival of political life will follow where the economy has dared to lead.

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