Flag Riots in Northern Ireland: New Belfast Unrest Worries Business Leaders

The latest flare-up of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland has business leaders warning about the damage that could be done to the region's economy. Belfast has made strides in recent years as violence has waned, but peace and the economy remain fragile.

Photo Gallery: A Flareup of Violence in Belfast Photos
REUTERS

In Northern Ireland, it was hoped that an end to decades of unrest would finally result in an economic turnaround -- one which would be instrumental to establishing lasting peace. And initially, it seemed to work. In the years following the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which established a tentative peace between Protestant groups loyal to the United Kingdom and Catholic groups seeking union with Ireland, foreign investment rocketed upwards and business activity in Belfast also picked up.

More recently, however, the Northern Irish economy has been anything but dynamic, with negative effects of the recent downturn in the British economy being even more pronounced in Belfast and its surroundings than elsewhere in the UK. And now, with sectarian violence having flared up in recent weeks, local leaders are warning of its potential negative impact on business.

"Northern Ireland has been lagging behind the rest of the UK and our recovery has been slow," Glyn Roberts of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "This has come at the worst possible time and my concern is that these protests are making the situation even worse."

Roberts' concern was echoed by Invest Northern Ireland. "A small number of potential investors have raised concerns about the current level of unrest," the group said in a statement quoted by the Irish Times. "Invest NI is working closely with them to minimize the impact of any negative perceptions."

Worrisome Escalation of Violence

The new wave of protests has been swelling since mid-December, when the Belfast City Council voted to no longer fly the British flag every day from city hall. Instead, the Union Jack will be raised only on designated days. The clashes have become more intense in the new year, with Monday evening marking the fifth straight night of violence between protesters and police.

While the numbers of those involved in the rioting have been small -- limited to the dozens on Monday night -- the escalation has been nonetheless worrisome. Over the weekend, police reported having been fired on. Security officials have also been showered with Molotov cocktails, paving stones, fireworks and paint bombs. Some cars have been attacked with hatchets and sledgehammers. On Monday night, police responded with water canons and so-called "baton rounds," which refers to non-lethal plastic or bean-bag projectiles fired out of a shotgun.

Over 60 police officers have been injured since the unrest began in December and over 100 rioters arrested. "As chief constable, I'm taking the unusual step of calling directly now for protests, if not to be ended, to take a step back, for the violence to come to an end and for responsible voices to be heard," top security official Matt Baggot told reporters on Monday. Given that some involved in the rioting have been as young as 10, he also appealed to parents to prevent their children from taking part.

Of particular concern are indications that pro-British militant groups may be behind the violent attacks on the police. "What (the attacks) quite clearly demonstrate is the fact that paramilitaries have hijacked this flags protest issue and they have now turned their guns on the police," Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, told BBC radio.

Roberts said that his organization had been hoping that 2013 would mark yet another upturn in tourism to Belfast and the surrounding region, with several events planned. He noted that development projects in the city, including the Titanic Quarter and the 2012 opening of a Titanic-themed museum, had made for a successful year in terms of visitors even as the economy has stagnated and unemployment has risen.

'Negative Impact'

"The biggest question now is the impact the violence is having on the international image of Belfast," Roberts said. He also said that 2012 was a terrible year for retail sales in the Northern Irish capital and that many Christmas shoppers chose to go elsewhere as the violence began escalating in December.

The latest rioting is just the most recent indication that, even 15 years after the 1998 peace agreement between Catholics and Protestants, tension still remains. June of 2011 saw a similar violent flare-up as did last July. Still, hostilities have become rare since two loyalist militant groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters, agreed to lay down their weapons in 2007.

And as violent as the clashes have been, the limited number of those involved has provided some cause for optimism. "Clearly the violence is a step up in terms of what's happened more recently, but they're simply not getting people out on the street," Peter Shirlow, a professor at Queen's University in Belfast, told Reuters. "Protestants are annoyed about the flag, but they're even more annoyed about the violence. There's no stomach for this. That mass mobilization isn't there anymore."

Roberts too is quick to emphasize the limited nature of the protests. "We should put this into perspective," he said. "It's not widespread and is limited to just a few areas. But my concern remains that all of this will have a negative impact."

cgh -- with wire reports

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