A long way from the Troubles: why Brexit may benefit Northern Ireland

Belfast is an emerging rather than a developed market – opportunity lies in its potential. 

One recent afternoon, two gay men, Catholic Italians, stepped off a city tour bus on the Shankill Road, a notorious Protestant enclave in Belfast. They were looking for and expecting trouble, but could not find any. An elderly lady carrying a bag of sausages shuffled by and asked with a kind curiosity: “Do you boys need a hand?”

Historically, this is not how happy tales from Belfast begin. The interface between the loyalist Shankill and republican Falls roads was among the most deadly during the Troubles. Yet the Italian tourists were disappointed. They had come to the heart of the divided city to experience the tension as well as confront Ulster’s social conservatism. “But the people were so friendly!” they said.

Belfast has travelled a long way since my schooldays there, which began a year after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was signed. Now, as an intermittent visitor, I am struck by the city’s progress and excited for its future. This is not to suggest I took a dim view of Belfast in the late 1990s. In the wake of the momentous peace agreement, the city always seemed to me a great deal “cooler” than the consensus suggested.

To a newcomer from England, Belfast was defined by a charismatic warmth expressed through a rampaging, sometimes savage humour, which cautioned against taking yourself too seriously. Counter-intuitively, it was also a safe place for an independence-seeking teenager to break ranks with parental drop-offs and pick-ups. One of the few advantages of petty crime giving way to paramilitary, organised crime was relative freedom from indiscriminate incidents such as muggings.

But the Troubles retarded economic progress. When I lived in Belfast, it felt, with some exceptions, as if  globalisation had overlooked the province. Most notable to a teenager was the absence of coffee chains. Starbucks opened its first shop in England in 1998, but it was a further six years before we had an outlet in Belfast, and longer still before rivals Costa Coffee and Caffè Nero arrived. Two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, the three chains have more than 60 shops in the province.

Over the past ten years, foreign investors have gradually awoken to the opportunities presented by Belfast. In 2007, I took visiting friends on the newly established bus tour. I don’t expect any other city tour makes a feature of the local Ikea. But as we drove past its bold yellow letters amid the grey of Belfast Lough, our guide proudly cited its arrival, 20 years after first opening in England, as proof of political progress. As the Italian tourists discovered, Belfast’s growing diversity is equally apparent. On my most recent visit, a pensioner in a bar recounted his disorientation on holiday in north London. Following a stay in Finsbury Park, he described how he and his wife had been the only white people on the bus one evening. “We’re not used to that, being from over here,” he said.

That was true ten years ago, but it is a little less so today. For decades, the Troubles rendered Belfast an unattractive destination for migration and tourism. Non-Ulster accents were a conspicuous rarity when I was at school, yet the voices overheard in cafés, on buses and in shops in the city centre today are much more varied.

The statistics confirm this: a 2016 paper published by the Northern Ireland Assembly found an unprecedented rise in international migration. Between 2000 and 2014, almost 175,000 long-term international migrants are estimated to have arrived, moving Northern Ireland from a position of net migration loss to annual population gain.

The positive associations with the hugely popular TV drama Game of Thrones, which is filmed on location in Northern Ireland, the construction of the Titanic, and the province’s natural beauty have led to flourishing tourism.

Yet Belfast’s progress is marred by stubborn kinks in the social and political landscape. While sectarian tension no longer exerts a crushing weight on local politics, party politics remains firmly within its grasp.

To add to this complexity, a year has now passed since the devolved administration collapsed following a renewable energy scheme scandal. And Ulster’s renowned social conservatism continues to define its dominant political force, the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up Theresa May’s government in London. Northern Ireland trails the rest of the UK in the legalisation of abortion and gay marriage (and, on the latter, the Irish Republic, too). Much of the education system, as well as housing, remains segregated in the least affluent parts of Belfast.

Yet this is also what makes the city an emerging rather than a developed market: opportunity lies in its potential. What little sense can be derived from the Brexit negotiations suggests that Northern Ireland stands to gain from something it voted against (56 per cent backed Remain in the EU referendum, while 44 per cent chose Leave). The initial agreement between Westminster, Dublin and Brussels suggests that a “soft” border with the Irish Republic is the only acceptable outcome of any eventual Brexit settlement, whatever political conjuring may be required to make that work.

Should this pledge be kept, Northern Ireland would be the only part of the UK with no physical border to the EU. This, combined with local structural advantages – a highly educated population, lower average wages than Britain and plans to reduce corporation tax from the UK rate of 19 per cent to 12.5 per cent – would significantly enhance Belfast’s appeal as a manufacturing, export and services hub.

The “special treatment” promised to Northern Ireland post-Brexit has been a source of outrage elsewhere in the UK. Yet, while deep discontent over Brexit is understandable, it would be wrong to begrudge Northern Ireland the first political luck to be thrown its way for generations. 

Victoria Mackay is the director of business risk consultancy VLM Advisory and a former British diplomat 

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power