Today sees the start of a significant week for Northern Ireland, politically and economically. While we mark the achievements of the recent past — the establishment of a new devolved administration a year ago on Thursday — we're also laying plans for accomplishments in the future. The US-Northern Ireland investment conference, taking place around the anniversary, could be vital in determining how successful that future can be.
Those two themes of the week, politics and economics, are inseparable. While there are many reasons to suppose the Executive will provide stable government for the foreseeable future, the return of devolution did not instantly transform Northern Ireland into that much talked about nirvana, a normal society. There's still a lot of work to be done.
And the scope for progress depends very much on the economy. Bill Clinton once remarked that the major difference (there are many) between the successful peace process in Northern Ireland and the struggling efforts in the Middle East is jobs. It's a simplification, of course, but Mr Clinton knows what he's talking about.
People were willing to compromise here because so many have so much invested in society — jobs, homes, family. It's not the only factor, but political stability is the best way of making sure economic stability can continue. The contrast in Mr Clinton's example is that the hopelessness running through the Palestinian territories has fostered the death cult of the suicide bomber. Poverty doesn't breed bombers of itself, because if people can see a way out, they will work for it.
The right economic conditions helped Northern Ireland heal the worst of its problems, and it's vital that balm continues. Our warring factions have buried the hatchet — verifiably, and under concrete — but animosity still runs deep in society. Common economic goals can help us overcome that.
That's why the investment conference is important to us. Of course, while all that might spark feelings of virtue in conference delegates if they decide to do business here, it won't be the reason they decide to sign on the dotted line. That decision will be based on hard economic realities.
We have to make a business case, and we're off to a good start. We offer a prime, English-speaking European base with an educated and motivated workforce. But the London Government could do more. Gordon Brown will be personally encouraging investors to get out their chequebooks on Thursday, at the same time that he continues to reject what could be one of the best attractions for them — a lower rate of corporation tax.
The Prime Minister should take note of the companies abandoning London for Dublin as their corporate base, precisely because of the lower tax burden. As incoming Taoiseach Brian Cowen pointed out last week, lower taxes in the Republic have fuelled economic progress, which has in turn charged up social progress.
We could use some of that, because our peace is a process, not an event. It needs to keep moving forward. Last year's political achievements have taken root. To truly blossom, they need the right conditions: rich soil.