Oz safety warning 'an overreaction'
Outraged hoteliers have hit out after the Australian government warned its visitors to Northern Ireland to be wary of potential trouble-spots.
Earlier this year, police said the danger from dissidents was at its worst since the 1998 Real IRA Omagh blast which killed 29 people. There have been a series of failed bomb attacks on members of the security forces and one in Lurgan, Co Armagh, this month in which three children were injured.
Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, said: "Until that dissident threat is contained it is of concern, however, these things have got to be put in perspective. There are other countries in the world where terrorism is very much higher-profile and much more prevalent. We are not really in that position."
Nationalist SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said she would write to the Australian Ambassador in Dublin, Bruce Davis, and High Commissioner in London, John Dauth, to invite them to Northern Ireland. She said: "The decision to warn citizens about visiting Northern Ireland seems to be somewhat of an over-reaction. It is the stated aim of dissident republicans to destabilise the peace and this type of advice plays right into their hands."
Earlier this year, Northern Ireland was affected by serious sectarian rioting in north Belfast's Ardoyne, linked to the loyal orders' marching season. After a parade on July 12 through the nationalist area, 80 police officers were injured in days of clashes in Belfast. Missiles were hurled at police by youths and a piece of masonry dropped on a policewoman's head. There have also been tensions connected with parades in other parts of the country, including Rasharkin, Co Antrim.
Dissident republicans have stepped up their activities and planted several devices under cars aimed at members of the security forces. In Lurgan, three children were hurt in a blast which police said was intended to kill officers, while a viable device was discovered in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim on Thursday.
Despite the perceived escalation in threat, Michael McCormick, marketing director at the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, said last year 50,000 Australians visited Northern Ireland compared to 40,000 in 2000. He added that they were made up of backpackers spending up to two years in the UK and Ireland and older people with more disposable income staying for as little as a fortnight.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs warned citizens of bomb attacks aimed at police and military targets and said they should avoid demonstrations. It said: "We advise you to be alert to your own security in Ireland."
But Australians in Belfast said they did not feel threatened. Michelle Maxwell, 31, from Melbourne, has lived with family in Belfast for three years and works for a city centre hairdresser. She said: "I have no problem at all. You have to keep your wits about you and not put yourself into any kind of danger. In Melbourne, they have spots where there are gangs and crime going on."
Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland, which markets the island abroad, said the threat assessment had not changed and was at the same level as the US, France and Germany. "We will be taking the matter up with the ambassador in Dublin. It does not reflect a lot of hard work done on the ground to improve the perception of Northern Ireland as a tourist destination," he said.