Can Northern Ireland Get Back To Business?

After 25 years of violence and intimidation, Northern Ireland's people are getting a taste of normal life. Fewer British armored personnel carriers rumble down the Falls Road in Belfast's Catholic sector. Cars can negotiate city streets without being stopped at checkpoints. Taking advantage of the Irish Republican Army's ceasefire, a horde of tourists and journalists has descended on the Belfast headquarters of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, for souvenir T-shirts and other memorabilia.

Most of the violence has stopped for now, despite provocations by Protestant paramilitary groups. But whether the Aug. 31 ceasefire can be cemented into a real peace will depend on the British and Irish governments' ability to revive the region's shattered economy. For years, one of the north's biggest problems has been a huge underclass of unemployed and poorly paid adults. Widespread poverty stokes up Protestant-Catholic rivalry. For many impoverished youths in Belfast, the IRA and the Protestant militias offer the best economic opportunities.

Now, while no one thinks achieving peace will be simple, many do believe that the future looks brighter. For one thing, if the peace process continues to bear fruit, Britain, the U.S., and the European Union can be expected to fund such job-creating infrastructure projects as superhighways and airport expansion.

EXPANSION TALK. Already, there has been a flurry of meetings between the Republic of Ireland to the south and Northern officials to develop a joint postal service, an agriculture initiative, a joint tourism body, and other cross-border ties.

Even the White House wants to get in on the act. The Clinton Administration, under Special Assistant for National Security Nancy E. Soderberg, has set up a high-level committee drawn from several departments to see how the U.S. can help a peacetime northern economy.

Some foreign investors are seeing Northern Ireland in a new light. And local businesses are talking about expansion. "The ceasefire was one of the happiest days of my life," says Martin Naughton, CEO of Glen Dimplex, an Irish electrical company that owns Hamilton Beach appliances and is a major employer in both the north and south. "It's up to all of us to do everything we can to make sure it works."

Among the early movers are Hilton International Co., which plans a $27 million joint-venture hotel development in Belfast. Local textile-machinery maker Mackie International plans to test the investment-community waters with an initial $15 million public offering later this month. Irish Distillers Group PLC Managing Director Richard Burrows is upbeat as well. "We see the ceasefire in a most positive light," he says. "We'll be looking for opportunities to take advantage of it."

BASKET CASE. Despite its dreadful reputation, Northern Ireland does have attractions. The workforce is rated highly skilled and well-educated. Yet wages are relatively low: $11.45 an hour on average, vs. $13.35 in Britain, itself one of the lowest-wage countries in Europe. "Suddenly, there's increased business interest in the north," says John Carlin, director of the West Belfast Enterprise Board, which will soon announce a 500-job development project by a consortium of companies based in Scotland. Carlin says that the development effort should be directed at creating jobs in basic manufacturing and agribusiness. "We don't necessarily need high tech," he says. "Straight manufacturing, value-added areas such as food processing, are where the jobs are needed," he adds.

New jobs aside, turning around the country's basket-case economy will be a struggle. With such major industries as shipbuilding and aerospace mostly shuttered, overall unemployment is 13%--but it approaches 40% in the poor sections of Belfast. In fact, Northern Ireland's private sector is moribund. Half of the north's $11.5 billion budget is subsidized by British taxpayers, with more coming from the EU.

Still, many observers are impressed with the amount of goodwill that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams' ceasefire has produced. While the peace process in Northern Ireland is fragile, the momentum is building.

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