The local economy will continue to suffer if images of masked men clashing with police in Belfast continue to be broadcast around the world.
Most people in North America and elsewhere don’t bother themselves with the nuances of Northern Irish politics. If they see unrest emanating from our streets, they will holiday and invest elsewhere.
It’s true that Northern Ireland delivered the most secure and peaceful G8 summit ever and based on conversations I had with participants last week, the 2013 World Police and Fire Games lived up to the organisers’ promise to be the friendliest games ever.
Unfortunately, though, as long as scenes of violent disorder on our streets persist, Northern Ireland’s international image will suffer and constrict our economic potential.
The narrative of historical conflict is too strong, and too familiar, for the international media to ignore. Belfast, despite being a generally safe and peaceful city, will continue to be understood abroad as a place plagued by unrest and instability and this negative image will dissuade people from visiting and investing here.
Over the last year, I’ve interviewed hundreds of visitors as part of market research and polling projects for LucidTalk, and nearly every person, whether from Britain, the Republic, North America, continental Europe or Asia, has told me how they’ve fallen in love with Northern Ireland. They comment on the landscape, the food and drink, the warm and friendly people, the rich local history, and their admiration for Titanic Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway.
Once people arrive here their perceptions of Northern Ireland are shaped by their own positive experiences. But the old narrative of Northern Ireland as a place of violent conflict is a powerful one and deeply ingrained into the imagination of the international community. A two-minute news story about riots in north Belfast is enough to recall a lifetime of hearing about the Troubles. With so many other places in the world to visit and invest in they will categorise Northern Ireland as a no-go area and pass us over.
Consider the comments of a Canadian police officer who competed in the fishing events at the World Police and Fire Games. He has attended the Games for the last fifteen years and believes that Northern Ireland was among the best ever.
But he nearly didn’t come. After seeing images of riots related to the flag protests he wondered if he should cancel his summer plans. As a father and husband he was concerned about bringing his family into a context that might be unsafe.
In the end, he did his research and decided the violence was sporadic and isolated. But many of his colleagues back home, he told me, simply decided to avoid the Games altogether this year. This might explain why only 7,000 of the expected 10,000 competitors actually came in the end.
At the height of the flag protests back in January, Nigel Smyth, CBI (Confederation of British Industry) Northern Ireland Director, cautioned, “The violence and disruptive actions of those involved in the street protests is having a detrimental impact on local businesses, as well as damaging prospective tourism and investment for the year ahead.” Based on the numbers for the World Police and Fire Games, he was right.
There is no way around it; the best PR for Northern Ireland is better politics. No tourism campaign in the world can compete with the fear stoked by scenes of rioting, burnt-out busses, and bloodied protesters. In addition, while the media could spend more time broadcasting the positive stories occurring here, in the end, violence in Northern Ireland, even if largely isolated, will always trump peace as the headline story.
Which leaves us with one possible solution to create the positive international image needed to attract tourism and investment. Secure peace and democracy; find a resolution on flags, parading, and the past; and bring more people into the political process. Convince those that feel on the margins that they too benefit from tourism and investment and that they too have a stake in peace and prosperity. That is the only way we can project the much-needed image of a forward-looking, vibrant Northern Ireland capable of living up to its economic potential.
Barton Creeth works for Belfast opinion pollsters LucidTalk