Northern Ireland has made great strides since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and institution of the Northern Ireland Executive in 2007. But the six counties of northeast Ireland still have much work to do when it comes to cross-community relations, economic development and tourism.
That was the view of three panelists at Irish Network DC‘s 18 Feb. forum: “Northern Ireland: 7 years since the re-introduction of devolution; triumphs and challenges.” Here are some highlights from each panalist:
- Northern Ireland “has changed dramatically” since devolved government began in 2007. It is “safe and productive,” Houston said, “but we are not out of the woods.” The contentious issues of flags, parades and the past remain unresolved. Efforts by Dr. Richard Haass to agree a path forward to resolve these problems fell short at the end of December.
- First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were critical in landing the fantasy series “Game of Thrones” for Northern Ireland. The power-sharing politicians met with HBO executives in Los Angeles shortly after new outbreaks of violence back home. “They swung the thing,” Houston said.
- A “Yes” vote in Scotland’s referendum on independence could accelerate talk of such a vote in Northern Ireland. But Houston, working for elected officials with disparate views on such a step, diplomatically declined further comment.
- “Significant portions” of the population have not benefited in the post-Good Friday Northern Ireland, especially those who lack education. Mistrust lingers between the Catholic and Protestant communities, but glimmers of hope. In the last six months there have been experiments with daytime openings in the gates of the so-called “peace walls” that divided sectarian neighborhoods. “These are small changes in a difficult situation,” Houston said.
- “There are very few coalition governments that work like a well-oiled engine,” he said. Stormont does better than most. He slyly noted the dysfunction here in Washington.
- It’s crucial to “keep Northern Ireland on the radar” of the U.S. government. “We’ve been lucky for the support we’ve had in the past. We’ve gotten a lot of good PR, maybe more than we deserve.”
Alison Metcalfe, New York-based head of Tourism Ireland/North America:
- About 20 percent of the 1 million U.S. travelers to the island of Ireland visit Northern Ireland. The goal of the tourism group is to make Northern Ireland a “must see” part of their itinerary. “We want Americans to spend three or four of their 10 days [on the island] in Northern Ireland.”
- The organization is trying to coax more airlines to fly direct to Belfast. (Only United offers such service from Newark.) Flights to Dublin “are still a great opportunity,” Metcalfe said, adding visitors should “turn left (north) on their arrival in the Republic’s capital city.
- Tourism Ireland has to create “compelling reasons” to visit like last year’s Gathering in the Republic. Travelers age 25 to 35 are being targeted exclusively through social media.
- Northern Ireland offers a well-educated and young workforce. Sixty percent of the population are under 40.
- The G-8 Summit in Fermanagh last June and investment conference in October helped raise the profile of Northern Ireland. “But very few people automatically think of Northern Ireland for their offshore needs,” Haughian said.
- She said Northern Ireland wants to “harmonize” more with the Republic on economic development issues such as corporate tax rates. But the referendum in Scotland could have a big impact because of how it effects the U.K. economy and grants to N.I.