So what have we really learned about Northern Ireland post G8? For me some unpalatable lessons, and some big positives we can grow and develop.
On the negative side too much of the local media coverage veered dangerously towards sycophancy, it must be embarrassing for the PSNI to have laid on more temporary prison cells than there were tents in the protest camp, and there is a danger especially with the present Westminster government for the event to establish that Northern Ireland is a done deal now and it can safely go back to the policy of neglect that was pursued before the eruption of the Troubles.
In the case of some elements of the media the problem stems from equating power and wealth with virtue, a dangerous delusion forgiveable in the schoolyard, not so much so in the newsroom.
The implications of the over-policing of the event are the most potentially damaging in the short term because it creates a precedent both PSNI and Theresa Villiers may not want to be reminded of next time we have disturbances on our streets and world leaders are not present.
Of course you can’t criticise the police for wanting to make sure that everything went off without a hitch and all contingencies were planned for, and it is easy, looking back, to say we didn’t need thousands of extra officers from Liverpool, courts on standby and temporary prisons. But the fact is that we didn’t – and you are left wondering about the quality of intelligence that led to the resources deployed. It is inconceivable that the world’s intelligence services don’t have a handle on the likely scale of protests at such events.
All this leaves Matt Baggott and his colleagues in a difficult position. The PSNI was much criticised for not taking a harder line in the flag protests. Demonstrators were permitted to block roads and many officers were hurt in the disturbances. At the time the PSNI defended itself by stating that it had to factor in long term community relations and going in hard would provoke further trouble that PSNI did not have the resources to contain.
G8, on the other hand, is regarded as so important that whatever force was necessary would be deployed at whatever cost to ensure everything went smoothly. Many people will feel uncomfortable that there is one rule for protecting world leaders and another for our own community and its police officers. And yet if Baggott were to deploy an “overkill” approach to “local” street disturbances, the political implications would be extremely unpleasant. Let’s hope this never gets put to the test.
There were two big positives for me. The first is that because of its recent history and the progress made, Northern Ireland makes for an inspiring place for international summits, conferences and the like around peace-making and conflict resolution. This bodes well for the Maze/Long Kesh site and has important implications for our tourist and visitor industry. Our past is part of our present and is part of what makes this place special, it’s why many visitors want to come, let’s not pretend otherwise and let’s plan for that.
The second is that it often takes others to remind you just how beautiful our landscape is. That has always been my experience with friends from elsewhere: when they come here they are stunned by the glorious unspoilt grandeur of so much that we have here. So we need to protect and nurture that landscape, invest in it, and have confidence in its ability to attract visitors, and build the economy.
Sadly we have such a weak economy that there is a real temptation for policy-makers and politicians to put the prospect of new jobs ahead of every factor in decision-making regardless of other implications and long term costs.
So, for example, our town and village centres have been sacrificed at the altar of out of town supermarkets, creating low paid work, and destroying family businesses and urban life, thus siphoning money out of the local economy. It was poignant to see fake shop fronts lining village streets in Fermanagh this week.
Let’s hope that going forward there will be a collective understanding that our two greatest assets are our people and the land itself and that our future prosperity depends on investing in both, and that it is possible to do this without sacrificing one for the other.