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Northern Ireland Seeks to Cash In on Peace Dividend - 2001-11-22

Government and business leaders in Northern Ireland are hoping to cash in on a peace dividend as the long-troubled province moves toward ending three decades of sectarian violence.

Construction cranes pierce the Belfast skyline as testament to a building boom. City officials say more than 46,000 square meters of office space have been built this year, and 80 percent of it has already been leased.

Much of the development is concentrated along the banks of the River Lagen, where gritty, abandoned shipyards and warehouses are being replaced by hotels, entertainment venues and information technology centers.

About $1 billion have been invested in the projects so far, and 8,000 jobs have been created. That has had a big impact around the metropolitan area of 750,000 residents.

Jobs are plentiful throughout Northern Ireland with an unemployment rate of about five percent - down from 25 percent a decade ago.

Still, city leaders acknowledge that Belfast remains a tough sell, especially to foreign investors. As Brendan Mullan of the Investment Belfast organization puts it, "You are only as good as your last headline."

The headlines from Northern Ireland have been mostly bad for three decades, during which sectarian violence has claimed more than 3,000 lives.

The province has been torn by cultural, political and religious differences between the minority Roman Catholic community and the majority Protestants.

Most Catholics support the republican movement, which would like to see Northern Ireland merge with the Irish republic. Most Protestants are unionists, that is, they favor continued union with Britain.

Political parties and paramilitary groups operate on both sides of the sectarian divide.

Despite the years of violence, the economic infrastructure of Northern Ireland has been largely spared. Bridges, factories and power plants have never been targeted in the conflict.

Now business and government leaders are beginning to speak optimistically about the future. They hope Northern Ireland can enjoy economic rewards and political stability once all the provisions of a 1998 peace accord take effect.

Reg Empey is Northern Ireland's minister for enterprise, trade and investment. He is also a senior leader of the Ulster Unionists, the biggest pro-British party in the coalition government.

Mr. Empey says there is agreement across the communal divide on the economic direction of the province. "We may have had political disagreements, but economic disagreements have been relatively minor," he says. "There's been a consensus for a number of years on the broad thrust of it. Now you will get arguments on detail, that's only inevitable, but there aren't really huge ideological differences because we all felt we could coalesce around what we needed to do."

Brendan Mullan, chief of the Investment Belfast organization, says the province boasts a young and educated workforce, well-prepared he says to fill jobs in the information technology sector.

But Mr. Mullan also worries about pockets of working-class despair, where sectarian hatreds continue to fester. "We've got to be realistic," he says. "We are a divided community that's had 25 years of violence. You don't wipe it away like that. There will always be a certain friction over the next number of years."

Mr. Mullan says Northern Ireland needs politicians who can lead the two communities away from confrontation, instead of exploiting every grievance for political gain. "When we have achieved that, we can really go places," he says.

However, that dream could be a long way from becoming reality.

In a general election held in Northern Ireland last June, the biggest gains were made by the hardline parties, which represent the extremes of republican and unionist aspirations.