Northern Ireland requires urgent attention to keep peace on track

The peace that has been cultivated over such a long period remains a fragile thing in constant need of TLC.

As David Cameron today leads efforts to encourage investment in Northern Ireland at a major conference being held in Belfast, the province’s political leaders have strained every sinew to rebuff accusations that Stormont is not working and that there is a very real danger of Northern Ireland slipping back to the past.

During the Conservative  party conference, David Cameron found himself forced to deny that Stormont was in crisis; his Northern Ireland secretary, Theresa Villiers, had rebuffed suggestions that she was not getting her sleeves rolled up and playing a hands on role in talks over the future of flags and parading.

Sinn Fein and the DUP have also been engaged in an ongoing spat over the future and then non-future of the proposed peace centre on the site of the former Maze Prison.

Such is the degree of anger bubbling on both sides that reports have indicated that it is having an adverse effect on the operation of the executive’s day-to-day business.

With business leaders from around the world descending on Northern Ireland, however, political leaders have sought to paper over the cracks now emerging at Stormont in an effort to give visitors a sense of normality.

Speaking at a reception at Hillsborough Castle last night for those whose money Northern Ireland is keen to secure, Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, declared that the  peace process “is rock solid, totally secure, as are the institutions”.

Echoing the sentiments, the secretary of state, Theresa Villiers, told investors that Northern Ireland “enjoys a degree of political stability not seen for half a century”.

Yet for all the words and for all the progress that has been made, Northern Ireland remains a country in continued need of care and support.

Where else in the UK would protests and violence erupt over the flying of one flag or another? Where else would conflict arise over parades year in and year out?

And yesterday, Northern Ireland got a horrific reminder that violence has not yet been defeated, following what police described as the “callous and cold-blooded murder” of Kevin Kearney, a 46 year old father of four killed, according to a statement given to the Irish News, by “the IRA”.

Speaking earlier this week at a ceremony at Dublin City University at which they were awarded honorary degrees, two of the architects of the Good Friday peace agreement, the former UUP first minister, David Trimble, and his SDLP deputy at the time, Séamus Mallon, warned of the problems being created as a result of the tensions at Stormont.

Politics might have replaced violence as the main game in town, but the tensions remain not far from the surface, a reminder that the peace that has been cultivated over such a long period remains a fragile thing in constant need of TLC.

Today’s business conference is a welcome initiative for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s leaders have an opportunity to show that through political, rather than military leadership, they can improve the lives of those in Northern Ireland and provide the economic growth and development that goes hand in hand with peace.

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