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Great to see, feel and hear normality in Northern Ireland

Posted on 1 December 2010 | 7:12am

To Belfast last night to speak at the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce President’s dinner. Cold outside, like everywhere else in the country. Lots of worries about the Irish economic crisis, as everywhere else in Europe. Lots of uncertainty about the future, as everywhere in the world.

But what struck me above all was the normalcy of everything. I was introduced by the BBC’s Mark Simpson, who ran through just a fraction of the dozens of visits we made to Northern Ireland when TB and Bertie Ahern were leading the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland.

As I left for the hotel at the end of the night, I reckoned over dinner we had discussed the economy, jobs, tuition fees, airline taxes, housing, health, Obama, the coalition and how long it will last, the environment, sport, the World Cup bid … you get the point, just about anything and everything, but nothing about terrorism, or any of the violence that used to hang over so many of those visits here.

I remember once TB saying that we will know peace has arrived when people here are having the same conversations, and kids growing up in the same way, as in the rest of the UK. Well, that seemed to  be happening last night. One of the businessmen at my table said his young daughter had no sense of The Troubles whatever, that it was ‘as historic to her, as Mrs Thatcher would be to a six-year-old in England.’

Which is exactly as it should be. Northern Ireland is rightly seen as one of the Blair government’s greatest success stories. There were politicians from several of the parties last night, currently haggling over cuts that will have to be made to make good the general direction of the UK government set out by George Osborne. The Chamber of Commerce were pleading for quick decisions. The politicians were both blaming each other, and also calculating the political effect of any decisions prior to elections here in May. Like I say, normalcy, and for all the frustrations they were expressing, something wonderful  about it.

  • Richard

    Schools in NI are still largely segregated by religion, one of the main problems remaining.
    Your pal’s disasterous obsession with faith schools in the UK is a legacy we cannot criticise as your PC brigade will not permit questioning of the many religious bigots who run them.
    Witness the hold the RC Church had over it’s flock which allowed systematic child abuse in faith schools.

  • But Labour still doesn’t allow its members to stand for election in Northern Ireland. How normal is that?

  • Dave Simons

    I don’t believe that the thirty-plus years of Troubles were an inevitability. British troops were briefly deployed in Northern Ireland by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government during disturbances around Easter 1969. They were deployed on a longer term basis from August 1969 during ‘The Battle of the Bogside’. However in both instances the troops gave some protection to the Catholic minority, which was under attack from Orange thugs. The disturbances had been triggered off by students from Queen’s University marching for Civil Rights. The IRA was at this stage pretty moribund. After the Conservative Election victory of June 1970 the role of British troops changed drastically. The Conservatives were, after all, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Troops now started working with the Orange Order and the Protestant-dominated police force by attacking the Catholic minority. The IRA consequently had new life pumped into it. Internment in 1971 and the utter stupidity of sending the Paras into the Bogside in January 1972 acted as a recruitment drive for the IRA. From then on the Troubles were secure until a subsequent Labour Government managed to pursue a serious and effective peace process – unlike John Major’s effort, which was more hindrance than help. Sorry to be partisan but I blame the Troubles on the unbelievable blockheadedness of Ted Heath’s government and the military elite that supported it. Thatcher compounded all previous mistakes to a degree to which only someone as narrow-minded,bigoted and one-sided as she was (and is) could be capable. Let’s hope it’s all behind us for good.

  • Anonymous

    Things are not perfect in Northern Ireland (as in the rest of the world) but let’s be grareful they are so much better than they were and hopeful they will further improve (as in the rest of the world).
    It’s good to see the economy here is improving at the moment—-thanks in large part to Alister Darling.

  • Anonymous

    Total bollocks as usual from you. Maybe the ruling classes at your fancy function think you and TB have left things normal, take it from me you have not. Next time you are over take a walk outside the five star penthouse you are in and see what is really happening. Economy wrecked, disaffected youth, unemployment and rising terrorism, and its only started. What you and Tony have done is put the people of NI back at the mercy of the most evil terrorists in Europe. Chat to the real people on the ground or police and below Chief Insp rank they will put you straight.

  • Gilliebc

    I agree with your comments marymot, things in Northern Ireland have obviously improved from the days when the troubles dominated the news. Thanks in the main to Tony Blair and that nice, mild-mannered American man, whose name escapes me at the momment, George something I think it was.
    When money began to be invested in a big way it was a sure sign that things would not be allowed to return to the bad old days. Let’s all hope that continues to be the case.

  • Chris lancashire

    I just knew those nasty Conservatives were at the bottom of all the Irish troubles.

  • Dave Simons

    Thanks Chris but you’d be a lot more persuasive if you backed up some of your comments, on this issue and on other issues other people have made on this blog. For instance I’ve made an assertion that the role of British troops in Northern Ireland changed drastically after the June 1970 General Election. I’ve also made an unprovable assertion (since we can’t replay history) that the thirty-plus years of Troubles in Northern Ireland did not have to happen and would not have happened but for their coincidence with twenty three and a half years of Conservative government. If you’re saying that neither assertions stand up to scrutiny then why don’t you bolster your counter-assertion with a few facts?

  • Dave Simons

    I attended one of Alastair’s talks recently and didn’t notice a high representation in the audience from the ruling classes. I did notice a lot of Andrew Marr’s blogger stereotypes making comments in the tone of ‘reality1960’.
    I’d be interested to know what you mean by ‘normal’ in relation to Northern Ireland. Do you mean the well-entrenched sectarian state that resulted in peaceful civil rights activists being ambushed by armed thugs at places like Burntollet in late 1968?
    Can you tell me a time since 1968 when the words ‘economy wrecked’, ‘diasaffected youth’ and ‘unemployment’ have not been applicable to Northern Ireland? As for ‘rising terrorism’ let’s just hope you’re wrong – I’m pretty sure ‘the real people on the ground’ and ‘the police’ ‘below Chief Insp rank’ have had enough, but with what is effectively an old-fashioned Tory government back in office I’m not confident on the basis of previous history.

  • Chris lancashire

    Said it yourself Dave “unprovable assertion”.

  • Dave Simons

    I did indeed say it myself so I wouldn’t have thought I needed telling. I’m still waiting patiently for you to say something at all. But on the subject of ‘unprovable assertions’ I’ll give you another one on a different subject which perhaps you feel more inclined to accept. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher used to counter the arguments for nuclear disarmament by saying that Cruise Missiles, Trident and other weapons of mass destruction had maintained the peace in Europe for forty years. That was an unprovable assertion – we can’t replay history to find out whether there would have been peace or not in Europe during that forty year period if there had been no nuclear deterrents. Unfortunately, and despite her undergraduate experience in chemistry, Margaret Thatcher was more of a religious fundamentalist than a scientist. But be honest Chris – does her unprovable assertion bother you as much as mine?