To Belfast last night to speak at the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce President’s dinner. Cold outside, like everywhere else in the country. Lots of worries about the Irish economic crisis, as everywhere else in Europe. Lots of uncertainty about the future, as everywhere in the world.
But what struck me above all was the normalcy of everything. I was introduced by the BBC’s Mark Simpson, who ran through just a fraction of the dozens of visits we made to Northern Ireland when TB and Bertie Ahern were leading the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland.
As I left for the hotel at the end of the night, I reckoned over dinner we had discussed the economy, jobs, tuition fees, airline taxes, housing, health, Obama, the coalition and how long it will last, the environment, sport, the World Cup bid … you get the point, just about anything and everything, but nothing about terrorism, or any of the violence that used to hang over so many of those visits here.
I remember once TB saying that we will know peace has arrived when people here are having the same conversations, and kids growing up in the same way, as in the rest of the UK. Well, that seemed to be happening last night. One of the businessmen at my table said his young daughter had no sense of The Troubles whatever, that it was ‘as historic to her, as Mrs Thatcher would be to a six-year-old in England.’
Which is exactly as it should be. Northern Ireland is rightly seen as one of the Blair government’s greatest success stories. There were politicians from several of the parties last night, currently haggling over cuts that will have to be made to make good the general direction of the UK government set out by George Osborne. The Chamber of Commerce were pleading for quick decisions. The politicians were both blaming each other, and also calculating the political effect of any decisions prior to elections here in May. Like I say, normalcy, and for all the frustrations they were expressing, something wonderful about it.