I think my wife would confirm I am not prone to unwarranted bouts of optimism, but post-Twelfth I am more confident about Northern Ireland’s future than I was during the flags protests. Why?
Firstly, riots in and around the Twelfth are nothing new. They happen every year, like Boxing Day sales and Cup Finals. Nevertheless, the historical record will show they are becoming ever more restricted in their geographical locations and their number – 99.5% of parades in fact proceed without contention (and indeed with a great deal of fun and good humour). The the main demonstration for County Londonderry took place with great respect on all sides within the Walls of Derry is in fact bigger news than the fact that Ardoyne was contentious (as always), even if it doesn’t make for “news” – noting that this follows on from an Irish Minister’s attendance at a demonstration in Fermanagh last year and agreement in previously contentious locations such as Crumlin.
Secondly, for all the broken relationships six months ago, there is clear evidence some of them at least are being repaired. Even in Ardoyne, albeit too little too late this year, talks took place and the beginning of relationships was in evidence. The process of people who six months ago held completely competing views finding at least some common ground is increasingly widespread (even on this blog!)
Thirdly, there is an understanding that although, occasionally and outrageously, law-breaking occasionally gives you a short-term advantage, it never does in the longer term. Indeed, the process, which is absolutely needed, of Sinn Fein moving towards the stage where they accept the IRA campaign was fundamentally wrong has clearly begun in comments from the current Lord Mayor.
Fourthly, other stuff is happening which is now taken as “normal” but once most certainly was not – Springsteen was in town; yet another NI contestant won a UK-wide talent show (of sorts); Belfast City Centre has no less a cosmopolitan feel than the others I’ve visited this month (Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Hamburg and Antwerp); companies such as Concentrix are expanding; unemployment, while not falling dramatically, at least seems to be stabilising; and yes, the sun’s out. I myself had American visitors yesterday and expect Danish visitors within the next few weeks.
There remain very, very serious issues to deal with. Whether or not government corruption or politicians breaching the Rule of Law is or is not happening, it is apparent we can do nothing about it either way within the current structures; the real economy (the one where we actually create wealth and export goods and services) is still far too small; no start has been made on tackling poverty, delivering welfare reform, reforming planning and so on. This is frustrating, nay outrageous – but, you know, it’s far from unique to Northern Ireland!
The train is crawling “out of the station” as Tony Blair once put it. On occasions, it even stops for no apparent reason. But I think there are grounds to agree at least that we remain fundamentally on the right track.