Eric Waugh was in rural Provence last week, when a lorry with a once Irish name on its side went past. Of course the name is still Irish, but the brand has gone international. And, he argues it is that international mix that once built and delivering engineering that served the world’s navies, and processed the world’s teas. It also what is promised by the very public and warm rapprochement between Messers Paisley and McGuinness. But having declared war over, the next, possibly more, difficult step (since it implies releasing ourselves from some difficult long term conditioning) lies in winning the peace.
A vanishing generation in Northern Ireland was reared in school on the worldwide supremacy of Ulster industry – in ropes, linen, ships, engineering and tobacco. When the warships of the German Grand Fleet were scuttled by their crews in Scapa Flow after the armistice which ended the First World War, almost every vessel salvaged was found to have been fitted with the great ventilating fans manufactured by Davidson’s Sirocco Works in Belfast. But Sirocco, which once produced three-quarters of the world’s tea processing machinery, is no more.
The fact is that, while an older generation preened, a sinister detail was ignored. Little of the great industries clustered round the Lagan basin were home-grown: virtually all were created by outsiders. Samuel Davidson was born in Belfast and Tom Gallaher in Co Derry, but Harland came from Yorkshire, Wolff from Hamburg; the first linen men were Huguenots, refugees from persecution in France, and James Mackie, and Combe (who opened the Falls Foundry), like Dunlop, all came from Glasgow.
Northern Ireland still has its entrepreneurs, but they have had to start from scratch in a new game. The fact that the Republic’s government is putting up £400m to improve roads inside Northern Ireland, even allowing that there is a strong vein of self-interest involved, says everything about the new pecking order. So, if we are in a new ball game, it is very much in the common interest that we should play it wholeheartedly together.
That is why Ian Paisley’s new complexion of beneficence is the right one. That is why the warmer tone of Martin McGuinness will yield dividends. As we recoil from the resurgence of ETA in Spain, no one wishes to turn the clock back.
Meantime, we share our most grievous problems. In Dublin the perils of the Republic’s new affluence are clear to see. One road death in three involves a youngster under 25 – the highest proportion in the EU. There are 8,200 heroin addicts on methadone, supposed to be ‘withdrawing’, but many on the synthetic drug for years. Incidence of cancer is the third highest among 38 European countries. Poverty among the underclass is fed by expensive must-have services – electricity, gas, phones, housing, transport – where prices have increased by 27% in the last five years; and inflation is still the fourth highest in the 30-nation OECD group. As in the UK, health and hospitals remain a big problem area.
Accordingly, if, as the First Minister avers, “the war is over”, the next challenge is to generate the goodwill of peace. That is why the Armagh meeting showed promise. Neither side in what must be a new partnership has any grounds to crow: there should be none – and, pointedly, there was none. Gadzooks! The Dublin ministers forswore their Mercs and came in a bus! What more can one ask?