In Belfast, Peace But No Prosperity

Fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, an economy adrift

Colm Heatley

Change in unemployment


The Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland between Catholic republicans seeking a united Ireland and Protestant unionists loyal to the U.K. The peace has largely held, a remarkable achievement. Yet in the streets of Belfast (pop. 281,000), the city most injured by the “Troubles,” few are celebrating the 15th anniversary of the agreement. They just want a job.

While the swelling ranks of jobless Spaniards and Greeks have come to symbolize Europe’s economic crisis, few cities are struggling more than Belfast. “This is the toughest time I can remember for work,” says Robert Ireland, 30, speaking in a job center for the unemployed in the heavily Catholic Whiterock area of West Belfast, where almost 1 in 5 men are out of work. “People wanted peace, but they didn’t realize it would take more than that to deliver jobs,” says John Bryars, 47, as he checks leads in a jobs center in Sandy Row, a Protestant area.

Belfast has never recovered fully from the demise of its shipbuilding industry, which at its peak in the 1950s employed 35,000. By the time of the Good Friday Agreement, decades of violence had battered the private sector: Almost the only way to earn a living was to work for the government. That or go on the dole.

Peace did deliver jobs for a time. Northern Ireland’s economy grew by 70 percent in the decade after the Irish Republican Army declared a cease-fire in 1997, according to government data. The boom, like the one in Ireland to the south, was driven by retailers, call centers, and small manufacturing. Between 2005 and 2008, house prices almost doubled. Then, with the advent of the global financial crisis, home prices in Northern Ireland fell by half.

Since the crisis hit in 2008 companies including Seagate Technology and Caterpillar have shut down some or all of their plants in the Belfast area. Northern Ireland now has a higher proportion of empty stores — 21 percent — than anywhere else in Britain, says Glyn Roberts, who heads the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association. “There doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel,” says Sinton McKeown, 50, owner of a shop selling newspapers and beverages down the road from Belfast City Hall. “The office block beside me closed. So many have lost their jobs that during the week it is much quieter.”

While still officially at 8.4 percent, joblessness in Northern Ireland is increasing at the fastest pace in all of the U.K. About 27 percent of the population is defined as economically inactive, or without a job and not looking for one, labor statistics show. As part of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity plan, Britain must narrow its budget deficit by £130 billion ($202 billion) through spending cuts and tax increases by the 2015-2016 financial year. Northern Ireland will have to absorb its share of the pain. “We have always been the U.K.’s Achilles’ heel,” says Angela McGowan, an economist in Belfast for Copenhagen’s Danske Bank, which bought a lender in the city in 2004. “There are no big solutions coming through, no silver bullets.”

The city wants to position itself as an alternative to Dublin by offering lower rental rates for offices as well as lower wages. The Northern Ireland government would like to cut the corporate income tax rate from 23 percent to 12.5 percent, the same as Ireland’s, thus giving big companies a reason to invest. The Titanic Quarter, a 650,000-square-foot dockside development, last year opened a visitor center devoted to the ocean liner built in Belfast. It attracted 800,000 visitors in its first year. Plans to develop the Titanic Quarter as a financial hub have been less successful. So far Citigroup is the only banking tenant.

Meanwhile, Belfast struggles on. Marion Beattie, 51, a Protestant from Shankill Road, a street synonymous with the Troubles in the 1970s, volunteers at a church-run cafe to avoid the boredom of being at home. Out of work for two years after losing her position as an auxiliary nurse, Beattie partly blames the foreigners who came to Belfast in the boom years and now compete for scarce jobs. “During the Troubles, there were no foreign workers here, so it was easier in some ways,” she says. “I’m fed up with how things have been for me and for a lot of other people, but I’m still confident I’ll get a job.”

Bryars says he’s been jobless for 18 months after the funding ran out at the local community project where he worked advising people on job training. “The politicians don’t understand that it’s the people at the bottom that are suffering,” he says. “I’m glad peace is here; I had friends killed in the Troubles. But the agreement hasn’t delivered for people on the ground.”

The bottom line About 27 percent of Northern Ireland’s population is economically inactive — without a job and not looking for one.


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