Thursday 18 July 2019

This 'flat-pack' assembly must be handled with care

In an interesting re-run of history, the Norsemen have landed again on Belfast Lough, under the blue and yellow banner of IKEA

A 10th-century Irish monk in the scriptorium of a Swiss monastery doodled a verse in the margins of the manuscript he was copying: "The wind is strong, the sea is wild, I do not fear the hordes of hell coming up the Irish Channel". Remembering Bangor and Belfast Lough, he breathed a fervent prayer for storms and tempests as an insurance against attack by Viking marauders.

In an interesting re-run of history, the Norsemen have landed again on Belfast Lough, under the blue and yellow banner of IKEA, not in longboats, this time, but articulated lorries, bearing not the sword, but flat- pack furniture. In keeping with the spirit of the times, too, they are greeted, not with oaths and naked swords, but by honeyed words and the even more frightening bared teeth of the smiling first and deputy first ministers, in their now ritual display of ritual bonhomie.

In times past, taxes were levied to be paid to the Vikings in the hope that they would go away. Now, however, it is Danegeld in reverse as local administrations, North and South, compete with subsidies, with services and accelerated planning permissions to persuade the new Norsemen turned traders to come ashore and put up their stall.

The Northern representatives will take a great deal of satisfaction in that not only the first IKEA outlet on the island, but one of the largest in Europe, was opened in Belfast, far ahead of its rival in Dublin, and that the tills are ringing as customers are drawn from deep in the South and across the island.

Much of this satisfaction is reflected in the smiling faces of Paisley and McGuinness, pictured wedged together on a Swedish settee. For some in the Real DUP (now rebranded as the Traditional Unionist Voice) this will be another immodest display of undue intimacy. For the rest, it might be, perhaps, sofa, so good -- but when is the executive going to get down to the real work.

The IKEA opening is indeed an indicator of better days in the North, an endorsement by a leading international retailing giant that it is safe to invest there, and that others might follow. It also reflects, as do rising house prices, a growing prosperity which puts more money in circulation, increases purchasing power, and enables people to raise, and to satisfy their expectations. It is perhaps a widening of horizons for a society which has been introspective for too long and a desire to join the European mainstream.

It all represents not only an end to conflict, but the transformation of an economy battered by the bomb and the bullet as well as by the winds of industrial change and globalisation. It is symbolic that IKEA, itself a flagship of the shift from manufacturing to services, is situated in the shadow of the iconic, but now idle, shipyard cranes, and that the shipyards themselves, where tens of thousands toiled, are being transformed into the Titanic Quarter, where renewed employment will be founded on IT and the knowledge-based skills.

IKEA is thus an important part of the regeneration of Belfast and of Northern Ireland, a symbol of hope and of restored morale. It will shortly be followed by the new Victoria Square development, and yet more international and UK High Street names.

At one level, perhaps a sign of retail sophistication, at another a further sign of the creeping homogenisation and standardisation of shopping against which only the farmers' markets and the restored St George's Market raise a feeble flag. Again, too, while the appearance of the UK multiples can be seen as a sign of normality being restored, many will hope that those hardy locals who kept their hotels, their shops and their services going in the worst of times will now keep the loyalty of the communities they served so well.

It may strike people too, that IKEA provides an appropriate metaphor for the Northern Ireland political experiment. The Good Friday agreement, after all, supplied not the finished article, but a flat-pack cabinet, requiring the elaborate tooling of the D'Hondt system to get it up and fit for purpose. In this case too, the problem was not the usual one of bits missing when the pack is opened, but of too many, in the form of guns and armaments, and the absence of the spanner of decommissioning necessary for stable assembly.

This time round, the parties have unpacked the pieces successfully, with new instructions for assembly drafted in St Andrews. These they have managed to follow, more or less effectively, although, as is again typical, not without skinned knuckles, wounded pride and the odd expression of impatience and exasperation.

They will also find that the typical IKEA store is cunningly designed and laid out to entrap the customer and to prevent egress without the opportunity to buy more. Once involved in the assembly, the hope must be that they will stay there for some time. The politicians will find, too that they will not get away with simply sitting on a sofa and smiling.

More is required, more effort in putting it all together, of making it work in the domestic situation. Whether metaphorically or in reality, IKEA and the executive will find that their continued prosperity depends on each other.

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