Edith Wilson remembers the last time Enniskillen, the Northern Irish town hosting next week’s Group of Eight summit, swarmed with police.
It was November 1987, when an Irish Republican Army bomb killed 11 people commemorating Britain’s war dead on Remembrance Day in an attack that became known as the Poppy Day Massacre and a symbol of the worst of Northern Ireland’s civil conflict. Twenty-six years on, the town is now preparing to host the two-day meeting of world leaders, including President Barack Obama.
“It was terrible, I was in church when the bomb went off,” said Wilson, an 83-year-old farmer, speaking on Enniskillen’s main street. “All the security now, it brings it all back to you. But this is for something good.”
By hosting world leaders in Northern Ireland, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to show how far the region has traveled since a 1998 accord ended three decades of violence known locally as the “Troubles.” While peace has largely taken root, the economy is struggling, with the lead-up to the summit dominated by a controversy over efforts to mask empty stores and derelict buildings from visiting dignitaries.
“Staging the G8 gives global recognition that money can’t buy,” said Angela McGowan, an economist at Danske Bank A/S in Belfast. “The recovery here is quite weak, growth is slow. There’s a need to showcase ourselves.”
The area around Enniskillen, a town of about 14,000 people located on a natural island, has had it tough.
Two years ago, Lloyds Banking Group Plc took control of the Lough Erne Resort, which will host the global summit on June 17 and June 18, after calling in loans. The resort, featuring a five-star hotel set in 345 acres of land, is now for sale for 10 million pounds ($15.7 million).
Opened in 2007, and with former U.S. Open golf champion Rory McIlroy signed as its touring professional, the resort was seen as a decisive break from the past for Enniskillen, which is about 75 miles from Belfast. During the troubles, more than 100 people were killed in the surrounding area, mainly British soldiers murdered by the IRA.
On Nov. 8, 1987, the organization detonated a bomb beside the cenotaph in Enniskillen in one of the largest single attacks during the conflict. The oldest victim was a 72-year-old woman, the youngest a 20-year-old nurse. In the town square, eleven bronze doves have been added to the list of those killed in the world wars at the memorial.
“I heard the bomb going off,” said Paul Maguire, a 65-year-old retiree, as he strolled along the main street. “For days afterward you could have heard a pin drop in the town. All of this security it does remind me of when the British Army were here, but it’s not the same. Having the G-8 here can be a really good thing for the town.”
Northern Ireland’s “prospects have been transformed by the peace process in the last 20 years,” Cameron told reporters in London yesterday. “We’ll be able to show the world this is a modern and dynamic part of the United Kingdom. It’s open for business, open for investment.”
The U.K. government will lay out a plan tomorrow to revive Northern Ireland’s economy, the Financial Times reported yesterday, without citing anyone. The accord may include tax breaks for investment in some areas, the newspaper reported.
Yet even the most limited initiatives can still provoke division in Northern Ireland, like the 300,000-pound program to put up fake fronts to disguise two empty stores in the area and hoarding around other derelict buildings.
While Irish republican party Sinn Fein said the move is designed to disguise the hardship caused by the government’s austerity program, local leaders said the region needs to look its best given the international spotlight.
“It might be good for the whole place,” said Wilson, the farmer shopping in the town. “I don’t know, but I’m very happy it is here. It’s very different from how it was years ago.”