Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Welcome mat and roadmap for peace awaits G8 leaders

Peace dividend: Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson with David Cameron at Downing Street
Peace dividend: Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson with David Cameron at Downing Street

So far so good. The loony lefties and anarchic demonstrators who usually inhabit G8 summits have stayed away.

The genuine protests over the weekend turned out to be low-key and orderly as they must continue to be because Northern Ireland has had enough of trouble and people here are rightly proud and protective of the peace they have achieved.

The Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said as much on Friday afternoon when he spoke at Downing Street, standing alongside Peter Robinson and David Cameron. The package of measures which they agreed on the economy and a shared future should be welcomed by everyone as another step in the right direction.

We may grumble and complain about the cost of the G8 summit but Northern Ireland does not get many days like this. Today and tomorrow represent a unique opportunity to show how much this once infamous trouble-spot has truly changed for the better, as it has.

This is a rare chance to pinpoint positively the county of Fermanagh and the province of Ulster on a global stage. Even as the summit is reported in Washington or Moscow, Ottawa or Tokyo, or across Europe, who knows what influence the words and pictures may have on someone considering a new investment or a holiday in this part of the world.

The visit of President Clinton to Belfast in the 1990s marked a turning point from conflict. The presence of another president, Barack Obama in the city this morning, speaking to a new generation, symbolises the coming of age of the peace process as does the fact that the G8 summit is here at all.

Northern Ireland is a rare, if qualified, success story. We would not be where we are today without the moral support and persuasive powers of the United States, with which this small island has such fraternal ties, or the goodwill and financial backing of the European Community.

Washington and Brussels need to maintain their interest and continue their support to ensure a truly stable Ireland, north and south.

As the Prime Minister David Cameron said last week it would have been unthinkable 20 or even 10 years ago that such an important global event could be staged here, let alone in Fermanagh.

His choice of venue is a masterstroke. The photograph of him with so many powerful world figures standing together by the shores of Lough Erne will be another iconic image on Northern Ireland's long hard road to a settled society.

That is not to say this tiny place has become a paragon of political virtue. Deep divisions remain but slowly the tide continues to flow one way towards more mutual respect and trust. While the stigma of sectarianism is still very evident, people here are learning to cope with their differences perhaps better than communities in G8 states, where ethnic tensions and trouble are on the increase.

If only they could, Vladimir Putin and Mr Obama would do well to step outside the security fence around the Lough Erne resort and take the opportunity to speak to the locals, unionist and nationalist, alike. The G8 leaders would learn some home truths which could be just as valuable in conflict resolution as any of the deliberations in their hotel.

Whether the G8 summit arrives at any meaningful agreement on conflicts such as that in Syria, or on other global issues such as hunger and poverty, the leaders could not be in a better place to find inspiration.

The ordinary people of Fermanagh could tell them that dialogue not violence has proved the only way of resolving difference. In the towns and villages around Fermanagh there are many examples of rebuilding from the wreckage of the past.

When the presidents and prime ministers look out on the stunningly beautiful and tranquil landscape of the Lough Erne resort, they will not recognise a people who have been to hell and back within the past half century. In place of the horrific events which took place in and around Enniskillen and the Fermanagh border, a remarkable spirit of cross-community determination has emerged.

Northern Ireland is still no heaven but it has moved on and is surely worth a serious look in terms of further international investment and as a tourist destination with a quality of life no better illustrated than in the beauty of Fermanagh's lakeland.

The message from Northern Ireland to the G8 leaders must be: Come on in and enjoy.

And learn by your experience – as political leaders on this island have done – that there IS an answer, no matter how long it takes to find it.

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