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2012 marks a Titanic test for First Minister


Buggy bar: Titanic Belfast

Buggy bar: Titanic Belfast

Buggy bar: Titanic Belfast

Next year two significant centenaries will be marked. Each, in its own way, poses a major challenge to the Stormont Executive. Robin Wilson reports

The spectacular Titanic visitor centre will open in Belfast in the Spring of next year and will rightly attract positive global attention. It is a symbol of the city we would all wish to see: building on its local historical traditions, but moving boldly into the future.

But there are two huge political icebergs to negotiate if the good ship Northern Ireland - not yet 'unsinkable' - is to navigate 2012 successfully.

The first looming obstacle arises because 1912 was not only the year of the launch (and demise) of RMS Titanic; it was also when the crisis over Home Rule moved from Westminster's benches to Ireland's streets.

Following the introduction of the Home Rule Bill, politics unravelled through the signing that year of Ulster's Solemn League and Covenant, leading inexorably, as it did, to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force at the turn of the year.

The spiral of violence and counter-violence descended through the formation of the nationalist Irish Volunteers in mimicry, the Curragh mutiny against Home Rule in the Army, the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, as Ireland's intercommunal tensions - growing since the first Home Rule crisis of the 1880s - exploded. The island of Ireland has never fully recovered.

Two sectarian states emerged in 1922 from the bloodletting, amid communal violence in the north and a civil war in the south.

Since the 1970s, they have, in their different ways, belatedly modernised - not soon enough to cause more bloodshed still.

But they have never come to terms with the fact that both were founded in contravention of the universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

It was perfectly legitimate for a petition to be democratically raised in Ulster against the passage of the Home Rule Bill through Parliament (then, of course, representing the whole of Great Britain and Ireland).

What was not was the explicit threat of violence which the Ulster Covenant contained; warning that its signatories would use "all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland".

In Northern Ireland, history isn't just the past - it isn't even over yet. And the DUP and its leader, Peter Robinson, will be anxious, in 2012, to align itself with that expression of popular Protestantism a century earlier; seizing the mantle from the Ulster Unionist successors of Edward Carson - the Irish unionist leader who signed the covenant at Belfast's City Hall.

That will chime badly with the current power-sharing dispensation, which requires an understanding that democracy cannot just be about popular sovereignty, but must also hold out to members of minority communities the equality of citizenship which the covenant itself claimed.

If the First Minister associates himself with the unconstitutional covenant in September, Mr Robinson will further damage himself in Catholic eyes as an impartial civic leader.

This at a time when unity in the devolved Northern Ireland Executive is more urgent than ever, as the economic waters become decidedly darker.

And that is the second big worry about 2012. When the Titanic was launched, Belfast was at the heart of a vibrant - though entirely Protestant-dominated - regional industrial cluster of shipbuilding, engineering and textiles, with secure markets in a British Empire then at the height of its global reach.

A half-century of devolution saw that cluster atrophy, as a laisser-faire government at Stormont failed to intervene in the public interest to secure economic renewal.

And while the Scottish government is now working hard to develop a modern cluster around Green technologies, the devolved Northern Ireland Executive has presided over a near-doubling of unemployment since 2007 - no doubt a factor in the embarrassment of the First Minister when he lost his East Belfast Westminster seat in 2010 to Naomi Long of Alliance.

Titanic Quarter should have been conceived as a renewable-energies innovation hub - not just a theme-park for the Titanic, plus apartments.

Denmark has made a strong public commitment to wind energy and so it will, instead, be the Danish-based DONG Energy and ScottishPower Renewables which will lease a terminal at Belfast Harbour for the construction of a wind-farm off the coast of Cumbria.

But the iceberg is the economic freeze-up in the Eurozone, exacerbated by continued stagnation in the US and an emerging slowdown in China.

In the world's biggest single market, austerity policies are being imposed on larger and larger European economies, through simple failure to understand what the economist John Maynard Keynes called the "paradox of thrift": it makes sense for one country to try to cut its Budget deficit by reducing costs and exporting more, but it makes no sense for all countries to try to do the same at once, as overall demand for their goods goes into freefall.

As global markets chill, Northern Ireland desperately needs a strong hand on the tiller of government - not politicians still following century-old political compasses, while believing the economic steering can best be left to a business autopilot.

For, just as in 1912, so in 2012.

Robert Wilson is a policy analyst and commentator