Tuesday 25 October 2016

Tourism is a great example of economic peace dividend

Published 25/07/2015 | 02:30

Titanic Belfast attracts visitors from all over the world
Titanic Belfast attracts visitors from all over the world

In the final days of negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there was a frantic scramble to meet the deadline set by talks chairman Senator George Mitchell. Because the various issues were being discussed across different strands, often contemporaneously, the challenge was to commit them all to a seamless interlocking document.

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Of the three key strands, strand two - the North-South Ministerial Council to develop co-operation between both parts of Ireland - was of critical importance to the Irish Government. The all-island piece was central for nationalists and it had to be meaningful and sellable to the electorate, to compensate for withdrawing the territorial claim to Northern Ireland. This could only be done by a referendum post agreement. This constitutional claim to the six counties had been an article of political faith and ideology of all nationalist parties. Earlier, talks had broken down on whether an Irish government "could" or "would "consider removal of the relevant articles (two and three). But as the toll of lives lost grew over a 30-year conflict, those with moderate views began to embrace the principle of consent.

That principle was that, for now, the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland would remain within the United Kingdom unless and until the citizens of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland both vote for a united Ireland. So the constitutional future of Northern Ireland lies with the people of Northern Ireland.

But the quid pro quo for that concession was a significant North- South dimension to the overall settlement. North-South bodies with executive powers and a North-South Ministerial Council to deal with agreed areas of common interest and cooperation. In other words, there would still be a "border" but it would be blurred by North-South institutions and powerful implementation bodies to facilitate cross-border cooperation and business.

However reasonable a trade-off that seemed for nationalists, for unionists it was anathema. They viewed the notion with suspicion; a Trojan horse, in the belly of which was a united Ireland. Such was the level of unionist neurosis about the "bodies" that the list of areas under consideration was rarely articulated. A long speculative list of areas for cross-border cooperation in the event of a settlement was drawn up by a senior official in the Taoiseach's office. We called it Wally's List. As the deadline came closer and the various strands began to merge, the scale of the overall agreement was awesome.

It ranged from prisoner releases, decommissioning and demilitarisation to on-the-runs, police and justice reforms, enquiries into unsolved murders, power sharing and devolution. UUP leader David Trimble was under ferocious pressure internally and from Paisley's DUP outside the talks. A side letter from Blair was required to assuage his qualms about the ambiguity on decommissioning. Jeffrey Donaldson had left the building prompting rumours of mutiny in the unionist camp. Tony Blair's visionary soundbite earlier that day, "hand of history", was looking like hyperbole. President Clinton was on the phone. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (who had buried his mother that weekend) was ashen. Fatigue was widespread. Mo was roaming the corridors cajoling parties, yet frantic with worry. Senator Mitchell alone was calm. The media were camped outside, drenched.

Keeping the show on the road and people in the room to assent to the deal was the only imperative. In great haste, "Wally's list" of potential North- South bodies was filleted down to six. Some were so low key and politically anodyne they are little known - InterTradeIreland is probably the most high profile. In addition, there are six areas of cooperation ranging from agriculture, education, environmental protection, health, tourism and transport. Tourism Ireland is responsible for promoting the island of Ireland overseas as a leading holiday destination. Tourism is the island of Ireland's largest indigenous industry responsible for over 4pc of GNP in Ireland and employing approximately 200,000 people. Last year an estimated 8.6 million overseas visitors came to Ireland, north and south, delivering revenue of about €4.26bn. Overseas visitors account for 59pc of all tourism revenue. This year so far the tourism figures are 12pc up over the same period last year. Ireland hosts 10pc of US visitors to Europe, with a strong increase in British tourists, up 10pc, and mainland Europe, up 14p.c

After a fitful start because of delays in decommissioning and stabilising the institutions, cross-border cooperation is normal.

Tourism Ireland shows how working together, north and south, can maximise revenues from our common resource, in this case, a beautiful, peaceful island; an example of the much heralded economic dividend of peace.

Irish Independent

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