Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Tourism could rescue our economy, but we'd rather drown in sectarianism than grasp hold of lifeline

It's July: when we either put up the shutters or present our worst face to the world. We'll never be treated seriously abroad until we put investment ahead of the right to offend or be offended, writes Malachi O'Doherty

The Giro d'Italia brought positive attention to Northern Ireland
The Giro d'Italia brought positive attention to Northern Ireland

There are few things as dire and disheartening as an Ulster July if your main interest in life is commerce and the smooth functioning of civil society.

Business closes down. People who don't want to be caught up in riots or who don't want their children to know yet that they are growing up in a sectarian society just leave.

It is probably a relatively good time for burglars with so many houses empty, though.

There is overtime for the police, of course, though some of them might prefer to work at a more leisurely pace at the height of summer; to go about in shirtsleeves rather than riot gear and flak jackets.

This was to be the season of tourism; that is, tourists coming here, not ours getting out. Yet some restaurants and gift shops will actually be closed for most of Twelfth fortnight. And this is not good. We don't have oil wells. We don't have big industries, so we need to develop tourism.

That's why every time there is a big event like the Police and Fire Games, or the G8 coming to Enniskillen, or an Open golf tournament, our political leaders almost swoon with delight.

They remind us that hundreds of millions of people around the world are watching the Giro d'Italia in Northern Ireland. And if only a miniscule fraction of them decided to take a holiday here, we would have a booming economy. That's the master plan.

The Twelfth was even meant to be part of that plan. Remember Orangefest? What a laugh. Instead, we are closed for business. Our main political parties are taking sides against each other in a dispute over an Orange parade, as if panicking at the thought that no one has actually noticed their political ineptitude. This is the clearest sign yet that these parties are not serious about business.

There is a possible benign way of reading the carnival of rage that we either indulge in or flee from here. You could say that it is clear evidence of the scale of our peacemaking achievement. We have reduced a year of sectarian acrimony to a single month. But that's not the boast we have been taking to the world.

No. What we have been saying is that we are an example to regions of conflict everywhere.

Come and see us, we've been saying. Just don't come during the holidays, because we'll either be shut or we'll be on the street spewing our native venom, getting it out of our systems.

First Minister Peter Robinson has cancelled a trip to Brazil to tout for business. He is needed here, apparently, to stand beside his people confronting the outrage of a Parades Commission ruling against Orangemen walking past the Ardoyne shops. He appears not to have grasped that a political leader's job is to solve problems – not compound them.

How, I wonder, is he explaining this to the Brazilians? "Yes, we'd love your investment, but you see there is a spot of bother. You know your Mardi Gras? Yes, a wee bit like that, but not exactly."

What needs to sink in with politicians and communities and the business people themselves is this: we need to work for a living.

There are times when they all seem to act as if they understand that. Then along comes July, when most people in the northern hemisphere take their holidays, go to each others' countries and spend money, and we either put up the shutters or present our worst faces to the world.

We cannot afford to do that. We cannot expect other countries to take us seriously. We cannot expect to be regarded as a functioning society with the remotest prospect of paying its way in the world.

We cannot ask for respect if we behave like a region which puts the right to offend or be offended so high on its list of priorities that it trumps the only prospect we have of actually bringing investment here.

Tourism is our lucky card. We can do it. We talk about it all the time; how, one day, the world is going to wake up to what a charming people we are, to what glorious golf courses we have, to our incredible scenery, the fishing in our lakes, the cycle paths, the craic in the pubs.

It is what we have all been waiting for – the big breakthrough that gives us some chance of earning our own living instead of spending only public money.

Well, we are kidding ourselves if we think this is going to work in a place where July is a write-off. And this would be happening even if there was no threat of trouble this year.

It is a habit deeply ingrained in us. It dates back to an industrial age when factories could close for two weeks and the workers could go to the beach, or get out their banners and play at being Prods and Taigs.

Those days are over. At least they should be.

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