Belfast Briefing: Business world has a message for Richard Haass

A worried community wants a shift away from costly tribal divisions

Richard Haass: the American diplomant is chairing the latest multi-party talks in the North.

Richard Haass: the American diplomant is chairing the latest multi-party talks in the North.

Tue, Sep 24, 2013, 01:00

‘Pints not politics.’ Could that be the simple solution to finding common ground in Northern Ireland when it comes to issues such
as flags and parades?

Pubs of Ulster, the North’s industry umbrella group, appears to think so. And it
is a good bet that most businesspeople would be in favour of this approach too.

In fact, it might not be a bad idea for Richard Haass, the American diplomat, currently chairing the latest set of all-party talks in the North, to base all his evidence-gathering sessions around various pubs and hotels. It would at least deliver a significant boost for the local hospitality sector in the run up to Christmas, given the number of people and organisations to which Haass will have to talk before his task is complete.

Haass is the latest in a long line of Americans charged with finding a solution to certain Northern Ireland-specific problems. This time around, it is to find “consensus recommendations” on “the specific issues of parades and protests; flags, symbols and emblems, and related matters; and
the past”.

Haass and his team will need a pint of something if they aim to tackle that poison chalice.

While Northern Ireland is
no stranger to all-party talks, there is a startling new dimension to the current discussions – one that revolves around
the economy.

In the past, the business community tended to adopt a “head down, get on with their work” approach while crucial political negotiations went on the in the background. Not any more. Not only have business organisations something to say, they are determined to be heard by Haass. Why has the North’s business community suddenly found its voice and why does Haass believe it is so important to listen? Fundamentally, it comes down to the fact that Northern Ireland is haemorrhaging millions of pounds in lost revenue domestically and, potentially, on the investment front while having to spend millions policing
local unrest.

Last month the PSNI disclosed that the bill for policing loyalist protests and parades in the six months to September totalled roughly £15 million.

Figures from Belfast
City Management suggest revenue in the city has fallen by £50 million in the 12 months to July. Although no analysis has yet been undertaken on how much of this relates to the impact of the flag protests, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) estimated earlier this year that 40
days of protests had cost the retail trade in Belfast around £15 million.

When you consider that 60,000 people are currently out of work and that the already low number of private businesses has fallen in the last six years by 13 per cent to just 114, 000, it is not hard to see why business leaders believe now is the time to make a stand.

Ian Coulter, CBI Northern Ireland chairman, says that, for too long, business has “had to tolerate and cope with the costs of division and violence”. This is no longer good enough, he argues, and it needs to take a “more active role”.

“The business community is growing increasingly worried by the visible deterioration
on our streets and now, 15 years after the Good Friday agreement, believe a more participative approach will
be beneficial.”

Business wants, Coulter says, to see a “greater focus on issues and actions that benefit the whole community” and a shift way from the “tribal party politics of the past”.

Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce president Mark Nodder also believes the time has come for business, and Northern Ireland in general, to take ownership of its own economic future.

He believes businesspeople want “less politics and more statesmanship” from elected political leaders.

“If we can stabilise the place politically and create the right conditions, the potential is phenomenal.”

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