It turns out that Secretary of State Peter Brooke was 25 years ahead of Donald Trump and wanted to make NI Great Again!
1990 onwards saw a ramping up of delegations being invited to come to Northern Ireland to learn about trade opportunities including the Mayor of London, Select Committees, American politicians, Belgian diplomatic/economic representatives.
According to notes in the ENV/37/24A file [selective scan] now released under the 30/20 Year Rule and available to read in the Public Records Office, SoS Peter Brooke “has it in his mind to use a speaking opportunity on 5 November  to speak about those aspects of Northern Ireland which are truly excellent”.
Department officials were requested to don their thinking caps to “accentuate the positive” and report back with examples of being “best in the UK” and “any respects in which Northern Ireland has smaller problems than other areas”. And boy oh boy did they reply!
You can read the IDB suggestions below. DENI reported back that attainment in mathematics was “as much as 20 percentage points” higher among NI pupils than their counterparts in England and Wales.
- The woodwork section in the Ballynahinch Centre of Down College of Further Education “undoubtedly matches the best in the UK” with a weighty medal haul at the National Skill Build Competition over 30 years.
- Levels of indoor sport participation in Belfast areas were the highest recorded in the UK.
- Uptake on the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme in 1989 was over 35% greater in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales.
- Next to Edinburgh, the Belfast Festival at Queen’s was the second largest festival of its kind in the UK
- Levels of new HIV+ and AIDS cases recorded in 1989, and rates per 100,000 were considerable lower than UK averages (a quarter), and just a shade lower than Wales.
- Rates of infant mortality were the lowest in the UK having fallen at a faster rather than other regions.
The final draft in the Department of the Environment file of the Secretary of State’s speech on the 6 November 1991 (not the 5th) at the celebrations to mark the 21st anniversary of the National House Building Council’s operations (NHBC) in Northern Ireland included praise for NI’s natural environment: visitors took delight “at seeing a clean, green and pleasant land”. While he noted that “there are not votes in sewerage” he was encouraged by “the new Sewage Treatment Works at Newcastle” with its “unique” treatment process.
Mathematics and woodwork education and training made it into the draft as well as QUB research which “has pioneered a number of world first including a method of detecting congenital hip abnormalities in children and a revolutionary new system of music coding”.
Not to be forgotten, “the University of Ulster is unique in spanning the University-Polytechnic divide and has been strikingly successful in developing innovative courses tailored to the Province’s particular social and economic needs”.
Very few of the claims made by the Secretary of State in his broad brush speech were backed by figures.
NI innovation was also celebrated, having “pioneered the vertical take-off jet, the modern farm tractor, the ejection seat, the portable heart defribulator, [sic] 4-wheel drive and the pneumatic tyre”, not forgetting “tonic water”.
An inch of papers collated into a nine page double spaced speech which you can read in the PDF of scanned pages.
Today’s version of the speech would include film and television and inevitably mention Game of Thrones. But what else would be noted in a modern list of NI excellence?
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.