Forget the politics, feel the quality of life

A JOURNEY AROUND THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN; Day Nine Belfast
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This being Ireland, we begin with a myth. There are more BMWs per head of population in Ulster than there are in the rest of the United Kingdom. Not true, said Yuile Magee. He should know. He's the managing director of The Bavarian Garage in Belfast, currently the UK's BMW Dealer of the Year.

"People are always saying it, but I've never seen figures to substantiate it," he said. Indeed, he doubts there could be any, for BMW's exclusive marketing technique is to look at the total number of cars sold in an area, decide that their market share should be 3 per cent, and then send the local dealer the determined number of cars. As a result, there is a waiting list until next Easter for the new Z3 roadster. It's a sales technique that the suave, blazered Yuile eloquently describes as: "When the bar's closed everyone wants a drink".

But it's a useful myth. Like all myths, it survives because it has resonance. For it speaks of the extraordinarily high quality of life in the province, a fact that goes against the received view of Northern Ireland as a mean, violent, poor, heavily subsidised place. Such stereotypes are what keep the province's beautiful, white sand beaches and verdant glens so wonderfully free of tourists.

But there is more to the good life in Northern Ireland than that. "Disposable income is high here," said Yuile. The schools are very good. So there's far less spent on private education, which saves an average middle-class family with three kids, say, pounds 18,000 a year. "It has some of the best - and least expensive - golf courses in Europe. London-style commuting is unknown: most people are home in 15 minutes, so the children aren't in bed when you get back."

"Nowhere is further than 30 minutes from the coast, so it's easy to go sailing," said Beth Robinson, a handsome woman in her thirties whose business has a reputation as the area's poshest estate agent. There is money for yachts, and for second homes on the North Antrim coast.

Beth's BMW was occupied elsewhere. So she borrowed somebody else's to take me to lunch. The new "in" place was Deanes, a city-centre bistro with an extravagant mixture of decor - simple lines cluttered by Greek columns and urns - and a similar magpie eye for food. "Recession never hit as hard because the boom was never as great," she began, dipping the hefty Tuscan bread into the first of the three kinds of oils - coriander, garlic and chilli - which arrived unsolicited.

Ulster folk, she said, are cautious. They have less plastic debt. They never had a negative equity problem. The average mortgage is about pounds 55,000 and house prices rise steadily by 5 to 10 per cent a year. "It was surprising how quickly the first ceasefire affected the market. Within three months people were coming home. Sainsbury's decided to open. When they did, there were people queueing up to get the trolleys."

Perversely, the Troubles had had a double-edged effect on the local economy. When Belfast was being bombed, the glaziers and builders bought the BMWs; when it wasn't, city-centre shopkeepers would buy. But in most respects the violence just hasn't touched the Ulster middle class. "We just see it on the TV like you do," said the nice woman from outside Ballymena, whom I had met on the boat train. For all that, middle-class weekend dinner parties studiously avoid the topics of politics and religion. "So many people who are urbane and apparently normal in every other respect," said Beth, "have such ridiculous views."

The middle class eschew politics, to the extent that the area's most chic eating place, Shanks Restaurant, half-an-hour's drive into the North Down countryside, closes at the height of the dread marching season. "Most of my customers go on holiday for a fortnight, to escape," said the chef/proprietor, Robbie Millar.

But Shanks, too, shows the underside of the peace dividend. The Troubles kept the multinationals out of Ulster, Yuile Magee had told me, but now the big boys were coming in. A Hilton is being built to rival the empire of big hotels owned by a local family. The local supermarket chain, Stewarts, has been sold to Tesco.

"Before, the directors of those local firms bought BMWs from me," Yuile had said. But the conglomerates have their directors in London and local managers just get VWs or suchlike. "It's going to bring a much bigger change than the people of Northern Ireland realise. Money which once circulated in the province will now be sucked out to the head office in London."

The fracturing force of the new economic global reality was evident at Shanks, too. One of the directors from Stewarts was in that lunch time with his Tesco redundancy cheque, wondering whether he would be able to find another job. And the impact is wider. "Stewarts used local produce - even the herbs were local," said Robbie. "What will happen to local suppliers now?"

At mid-afternoon, in the bar, Robbie's wife, Shirley, was chatting to the woman from the local wine merchants.

"We haven't seen your MD for a while," he shouted across the room.

"He doesn't entertain as much these days," the rep replied diplomatically.

"They used to supply Stewarts, too," Robbie whispered.

That evening Paul Rankin, the owner of Roscoff, the province's first Michelin-starred restaurant, where Robbie was once head chef, visited his protege for dinner. Rankin, a tall, wild man with stubble goatee, long curly hair and grizzled features, was greeted with warmth by the besuited clientele, who were evidently regulars at Roscoff, too.

"This man's from The Independent," he said, introducing me to one chap.

"You must know my cousin, Cal McCrystal," he replied.

"Are you a cousin of Cal McCrystal?" said another man, rising from his table. "So am I." The two men fell into intent conversation and I moved on. Northern Ireland, Beth had told me, was just one big family.

Rankin, who trained with the Roux Brothers, was at the wine list, choosing a bottle each of what turned out to be a formidable Californian chardonnay and pinot noir. I mentioned Yuile's thesis to him. He was unfazed. "We have to develop out of the siege mentality," said the Ulsterman, "and shake the place out of mediocrity. We have to learn to compete not just with Northern Ireland, but with the whole UK."

Tucking into smoked chicken with seared foie gras, calves' liver sauced with exquisite intensity, and a consummate mango cheesecake, it was not hard to concur. But whether the rest of the community would agree, one suspected, was a rather different matter.

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