Ulster heading for another chilly winter of discontent
Published 11/10/2011 | 08:00
Dear David Cameron, Are you gambling with the peace process? Are your cuts in public spending a step too far? Are you ignoring Northern Ireland as a special case within the UK?
These are worrying questions. We are entering a winter of deep discontent. Your argument, as Prime Minister, appears to be that Northern Ireland must take its medicine of cuts like everyone else. But Northern Ireland has never been like other parts of the UK. It is different today and will be for the foreseeable future.
I would like to take you on a tour of Belfast to see for yourself the state of our economy; into east Belfast, along the Newtownards and Albertbridge Roads, in the shadow of the big yellow Goliath crane, or across north Belfast, areas so run-down as to make Albert Square in EastEnders look like Beverley Hills.
The 'for sale' and 'to let' signs are everywhere. Some buildings look as if they weren't renovated since the Troubles.
What a contrast is emerging between the impressive Laganside waterfront development and the nearby neighbourhoods laid waste by violence and economic circumstances.
You need to come here and see for yourself, as you did when you and your ministers descended on inner-city England after the summer riots.
Then, you returned from holiday to take charge. Westminster was so worried that it was recalled. You promised all manner of resources, from better schooling to social support services. Hardly a day passed without one of your ministers outlining new strategies to target the problems of Britain's underclass society.
What happened here, Prime Minister? The same streets I travelled around last week were subjected to wanton lawlessness in the summer, the bill for which has only now been revealed.
The perpetrators were mainly irresponsible and disillusioned youths like those who looted stores in London, Manchester and other English cities.
However, there is one major difference between Belfast and British cities. The back streets of Belfast remain a potential breeding ground for paramilitary groups - dissidents on one side, loyalists on the other.
That is why Northern Ireland should have special-case status, unique to this part of the UK. But I wonder: do you really see it as such in 2011? What an irony that the budget for policing and for MI5 countering Irish terrorist activities here and in Britain is rising, while funding for health and education is being cut. Of even more concern is that the current economic strategy for Northern Ireland's future is fast becoming a pipedream.
Ideally, the relative peace we now enjoy should have encouraged major foreign investment here. In reality, it hasn't. Invest Northern Ireland says it cannot spend its budget because it cannot attract sufficient new business in a dire economic climate.
If new jobs are not found in the private sector and thousands of jobs are to go this winter in the public sector, what does that spell to you, Prime Minister? It will mean even more 'for sale' and 'to let' signs, more likelihood of social unrest, more fodder for the paramilitaries, more dilapidation, disadvantage and despair.
Northern Ireland is held up to the outside world as a shining example of peace and reconciliation, but its economy is now struggling to survive.
Virtually every economic indicator is a negative. The worry for us is that previous Secretary of State Shaun Woodward, might be right. He suggests that you, as Prime Minister, have taken your eye off the ball.
He says you should be meeting, rather than ignoring, our First and deputy First Minister. We all recall how Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness went to London last winter claiming they would fight Northern Ireland's case. Most of us believe their bark was bigger than their bite and they came home empty-handed.
You shouldn't be assuming that Northern Ireland can take the share of public expenditure cuts that the rest of the UK can shoulder. You should worry that the unpalatable cuts you are asking the Stormont Executive to impose this winter may make even more of us wonder about the value of devolution.
All in all, Prime Minister, I hope you aren't 'banking' the peace process, as Mr Woodward implies. Come over and see for yourself.
Examine what is happening on the ground. See at first-hand what your cuts in expenditure are doing to this society.
The prize of peace in Northern Ireland was too hard-won to be lost in any petty battle over the size of Britain's block grant to Stormont.