December 8, 2014
With a Catholic majority looming in the near future and the British government cutting back on funds to run the Northern Ireland government, rather profound changes are coming to this small province. One change may arrive before Christmas.
For all the attention it gets, Northern Ireland, with its population of 1.8 million, has fewer people than the three medium-size Massachusetts counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Plymouth. In fact the distance between the two largest cities on either side of Northern Ireland is about the same as between Boston and Hyannis.
Though a troublesome, unyielding, and sometimes violent Protestant faction still insists on insulting parades and the flying of British flags everywhere every day as a way of trying to preserve the old one-sided culture, in general the men and women of Northern Ireland have grown beyond the riots and thuggery to build a healing society.
When Charles Flanagan, the Irish minister of Foreign Affairs, visited Boston last month he urged Bostonians to stay involved with Northern Ireland, noting that Irish American awareness and support can be of great help to the people living in such a divided society.
But with a few exceptions, Boston’s Irish-American attention to the problems facing the people of Northern Ireland is much less today than it was in the 1990’s. We no longer receive visits from Northern Ireland secretaries of state. Former leaders like Peter Hain, Paul Murphy, and “Mo” Mowlam each were here multiple times. The British government and its local Consul General have evidently decided to dramatically reduce their involvement with Boston’s Irish-American community. Rare was it when St. Patrick’s Day did not feature a visit from a Northern Ireland minister or two. And consulate personnel were frequent attendees to Irish events throughout the area. That has changed over the last several years.
We have never seen current Secretary of State Teresa Villiers.
But Boston and Belfast have reached out to each other over these last six months to initiate the Boston/Belfast Sister City agreement. Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh and the then mayor of Belfast, Máirtín O’Muilleoir, were responsible for the agreement. The new mayor of Belfast, Nichola Mallon, came to Boston last month to further strengthen ties. British consular personnel were not it attendance.
In a visit to Northern Ireland last August, an observer saw a renewed spirit rising there. New housing, new confidence, younger people enthusiastically dealing with schools and education, the creation of skills and learning centers, and the dealing with the many problems of all modern cities. It was a city moving forward.
Two initiatives, both long overdue, are close to becoming a reality. The economic success enjoyed in Dublin and the rest of Ireland was due in some measure to the low corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent. Northern Ireland suffered by comparison with the British corporate tax rate of 21 percent. After much urging by Belfast senior business leaders, it appears that London will allow a new rate of 12.5 percent in Northern Ireland. Both Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and British Prime Minister David Cameron have predicted the reduced rate will be a reality soon, maybe even before Christmas.
This will not only make Northern Ireland more competitive, but it also will increase compatibility between North and South.
The second major initiative is the restructuring of government in the North. Much of this is already under way. The local governing councils are being reduced from 26 to 11 super councils who are supposed to assume responsibilities sometime in 2015. It is assumed this will save money and make decisions easier.
Recently there has been talk of reducing the number of members in the legislative Assembly from 108 to 90, along with a reduction in the number of executive departments. All in the name of efficiency. The assembly was set up by the Good Friday agreement and changing that will take a lot of compromise that will be very difficult.
The current system was the product of a desire for peace. This correspondent once asked then Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Hain how such a system could work with so many checks and balances delaying, and perhaps preventing, agreement on anything. Hain answered that he knew there could be problems and the system could be changed if conditions settled down between the Unionists and Nationalists.
According to Mark Davenport, writing for BBC News on Nov. 6,in 2006, Hain had already prepared a new system to be considered should the Good Friday system need improving.
Change is a constant in all forms of life’s endeavors. Current leadership could change anytime, (Peter Robinson told his party conference that he may be gone before the 2016 elections), current problems will vary in intensity, sectarianism will be fact of life for many years, and the Catholic /Protestant population ratios will change. But after many brutal years, the people of Belfast are enjoying a better life this Christmas.